From Phuket to Koh Samui, the country is nervously navigating its way through a reopening of the tourism industry. Chiang Mai could be next to roll out its carpet to welcome back visitors near and far.
However, obstacles stand in the way of tourism resuming, for Chiang Mai faces various challenges, from under-vaccination to tourist segmentation.
Covid-19 has brought the province, long dubbed the “rose of the North”, to an economically painful standstill for more than a year.
Chiang Mai’s world of tourism, which injects more than 100 billion baht into the local economy annually, has been turned upside down.
It was natural to expect the province to follow in the sandbox footsteps of Phuket and Samui.
A successful tourism reopening takes effective planning, a collective will of the authorities and people to comply with strict public health surveillance measures as well as the ability to learn from the sandbox programmes in Phuket and Samui.
The province is one of seven major destinations to pilot the sandbox project. Its participation is made unique by a specially coined theme of “Charming Chiang Mai”.
The Chiang Mai tourism sandbox capitalises on what the province is known best for: traditions, culture and nature, according to governor Charoenrit Sa-nguanrat.
What all sandbox destinations have in common is a basic requirement that foreign visitors must be fully vaccinated. They cannot start exploring straightaway but must be confined to their rooms for several days at hotels where they are subject to swab tests. A Covid 19-negative result will let them take part in sealed-route sight-seeing trips.
The Chiang Mai’s reopening was tentatively scheduled for Oct 15 although the timeframe looked precarious following a flare-up of Covid-19 infections nationwide a few months ago in the current third wave.
Four districts lead the way
A requisite for reopening is that at least 70% of locals have to be vaccinated and four districts — Muang, Mae Rim, Mae Taeng and Doi Tao — were chosen for the local sandbox model.
They are closer to hitting the 70% vaccination target than anywhere else in the province. Local tourism service providers joining the sandbox programme must be Safety and Health Administration (SHA)-certified.
“We mustn’t forget that the sandbox programme focuses on the foreign visitors who account for 30% of Chiang Mai’s tourism. The remaining 70% is filled by local tourists,” Mr Charoenrit said.
A plan had been in making, the governor said, as he envisaged local tourism operators gearing up their businesses towards Thais at the end of the year to harness the high tourism season.
However, the plan was derailed after fewer vaccines than expected had arrived, compounded by an escalation of the pandemic back in July.
Now, the plan is being reviewed in light of lower daily caseloads nationwide. The provincial authorities are keeping a close watch on the emergence of new local clusters of infections spread by office workers to households and the wider communities.
With the general outbreak situation in Chiang Mai appearing to stabilise, Oct 1 has been set as the date for the Charming Chiang Mai launch, the governor said.
“We are prioritising the health and safety of the people here. Vaccination progress and infection rates are constantly reviewed,” he said. The four model districts provide a benchmark for when reopening can get underway.
If the province is not ready to open by Oct 1, selected areas or establishments such as restaurants, spa shops and golf courses will resume business first and customers must be fully vaccinated.
Even in the four districts, only areas which meet health safety standards can reopen, he said.
Jabs edge closer to target
Dr Jatuchai Maneerat, chief of the Chiang Mai provincial health office, said the province targets inoculating 1.25 million people. So far 38% of them have been immunised.
Vaccination appointments are picking up pace. In Muang district, for example, 215,336 residents have signed up to be vaccinated. As of Sept 10, 112,219 people had been given vaccine shots.
Dr Jatuchai, however, urged more people to come forward. Of the target, 909,985 have made a vaccination booking. Some people said they preferred to wait for their vaccine of choice to arrive.
“If a steady supply of vaccine can be ensured, we look to be on course for attaining the 70% vaccination goal this month,” he said, adding virus containment measures were working well.
From 70 infection clusters at the onset of the third outbreak in early April, Chiang Mai has witnessed a drastic reduction to 20 clusters now.
Julanit Wangwiwat, chairman of the Chiang Mai Chamber of Commerce, said the government must implement risk management in a timely fashion.
It should make available both the free and paid vaccines to as many people and as quickly as possible.
“The intensity of the infection is crippling every sector,” he said.
Success of the Charming Chiang Mai sandbox could help restart many tourism-related domestic markets desperate to return to business.
News of the imminent reopening has brought selling points of various tourism magnets in Chiang Mai back in focus.
Pallop Sae Jew, chairman of the Tourism Council of Thailand, said more than 5,000 tour guides in Chiang Mai are currently out of work.
Several based in Doi Tao district, for example, are dusting up their knowledge about the partially dried-up Doi Tao lake, one of the district’s landmark attractions.
Where water remains in the lake, raft houses can be rented by tourists.
Mr Pallop said some 1,000 foreign visitors from Europe may return to Chiang Mai if the province reopens as planned in October. “That would be an encouraging first step for tourism stimulus,” he said.
The conditions for foreign nationals taking part in the Charming Chiang Mai programme include being vaccinated for at least 14 days prior to arrival, having taken out Covid-19 insurance worth at least US$100,000 of coverage, and having paid for a packaged tour.
Others are that hotel accommodation and an RT-PCR test must be secured beforehand through the SHA Plus Booking Authentication System (SHABA), a back-end system that can verify hotel bookings and payments.
Tourists will be tested for Covid-19 where they are staying. They will be able to go on a tour only if the test comes back negative.
Mr Wallop said wide-ranging package tours will be on offer for families; others will target visitors to spas and medical tourism.
Different from other sandboxes
He said the way Chiang Mai manages its reopening is different from the Phuket and Samui sandboxes. The other two are islands which can regulate the flow of people going to and fro.
Three tourism programmes are arranged for foreign visitors. A short visit of five days is for people playing golf, who travel back and forth between the golf course and hotel.
A medium-length visit extending up to 14 days includes an itinerary to see specific places in Chiang Mai.
A third type of visit is for people from the Phuket sandbox who have spent seven days in the island province and travel onward to Chiang Mai where they would tour for another seven days.
In the first phase of its re-launch, the Chiang Mai sandbox is expected to pull in tourists from Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, which are the traditional, pre-Covid markets for the province.
Visitors from other countries such as China and those in Europe are likely to return later.
The Chiang Mai sandbox will be assessed by the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration.
Narong Tananuwat, deputy chairman of the committee on northern economic development at the Thai Chamber of Commerce, said no crisis should put the country on hold for too long.
Chiang Mai is a northern hub is closely tied to the wellbeing of the country’s economy as a whole.
The province’s tourism revenue exceeded 100 billion baht in 2019. It tumbled to 43 billion baht last year when the first and second outbreaks hit. This year, there is little sign of the crisis bottoming out.
The Charming Chiang Mai programme carries hope of delivering a shot in the arm to tourism.