Human rights groups and others oppose prioritising the tourism sector which contributes significantly to the economy
* Phuket tourism businesses push for early vaccines
* Online petition faces social media backlash
* Thailand tourism numbers plunged 83% last year
By Rina Chandran
PHUKET, Thailand, March 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A year after Thailand closed its borders to contain the coronavirus pandemic, Phuket's famous Walking Street, lined with colourful shophouses, is empty, its white sand beaches deserted.
But a proposal by local businesses to vaccinate a majority of the island's adult population of about 300,000 before Oct. 1, in time for the main tourist season so that inoculated foreign visitors may holiday without quarantine, could change that.
The Thai government, which kicked off vaccinations on Feb. 28 and sent some doses to tourism-reliant provinces including Phuket, has not agreed to the "Phuket First October" plan.
Human rights groups and others have criticised the idea.
"The Phuket economy relies 80%-90% on foreign tourists, but we accepted that we must keep our people safe, even though we have struggled a lot in the past year," said Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, president of the Phuket Tourist Association (PTA).
"But now, more people are getting vaccinated, and the only way to restart the economy is to let these tourists in without a quarantine, after we have ensured the local people are safe," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The private sector has the resources to secure vaccines for 70% of Phuket's local population and have them inoculated before Oct. 1, faster than the government's proposed timeline, he said.
"We cannot afford to lose out on another high season," said Bhummikitti, referring to the period from November to March when the majority of foreign tourists generally visit.
Tourism makes up about 11% of Thailand's economy. Visitor numbers last year plunged 83% from a year earlier, prompting widespread job losses and business closures, and contributing to the nation's deepest economic contraction in over two decades.
Tourism Minister Pipat Ratchakitprakarn has said up to 100,000 doses of vaccine in the first tranche have been reserved for hospitality workers in provinces popular with foreign tourists, including Chiang Mai and Phuket.
Authorities had earlier said vaccine doses would initially be limited to frontline health workers and vulnerable populations in areas hardest hit by the coronavirus.
"It's not fair," said Matcha Phorn-in, a human rights activist in Chiang Mai, who presented a petition to parliament last year on the uneven impact of the pandemic on ethnic minorities who do not receive government aid.
"Instead of prioritising the most vulnerable populations first, the rollout is leaving behind marginalised communities like migrant workers and stateless people," she said.
PUSH TO SIGN PETITION
Worldwide, as vaccines roll out, migrants, ethnic minorities and undocumented workers are among those at risk of being left out, according to aid agencies and humanitarian groups.
In the Asia-Pacific region, nations must prioritise teaching staff after frontline health workers and vulnerable populations, global charity Save the Children has said, because of the increased risks of sexual exploitation and child marriage.
Yet Thailand is not the only country that is pushing for a revival in tourism to bolster its economy. Hospitality industry workers and taxi drivers in Bali, Indonesia, are also getting their jabs earlier than other sections of the population.
Thailand aims to launch a mass vaccination campaign from June. Several hotels and tourism companies want authorities to let in inoculated tourists without quarantine from July 1 - compared to seven days from next month - when large numbers in Britain, the United States and the Middle East will have jabs.
The #OpenThailandSafely petition says the proposed timeline gives Thai authorities enough time to vaccinate frontline hospitality workers.
"The financial, social, physical and psychological health of Thai people has been adversely affected," says the petition by more than a dozen companies. "The current situation is unsustainable."
While the online petition has about 11,000 supporters, it has also received a backlash on social media, with one Twitter user named Ian saying: "Please sign the petition so wealthy expats in Thailand don't lose even more money".
"Focusing on business means those who benefit are businesses. And it is not small businesses, but large corporations that will benefit the most," said Matcha.
But Bhummikitti of PTA refutes this.
"It's not just big businesses, it's also small businesses. People come to Phuket from everywhere in Thailand to work in the tourism industry, so reopening soon would benefit a lot of people," he said.
"Some areas in Thailand are less dependent on tourism, and they do not need to proceed as quickly with the vaccines. But in Phuket, we cannot afford to wait."
EVERYONE IS SUFFERING
On a recent weeknight in Phuket, scores of shops and restaurants were closed, with just a handful of local tourists taking pictures on Walking Street that was decorated with red lanterns from last month's Lunar New Year celebrations.
At Vegan Table, a tourist favourite, owner Simon Thomas has taken out a second mortgage to keep his restaurant open, and had to lay off a third of his staff, but is still running at a loss.
"I can keep going for maybe another three-four months. A lot of the businesses that are shut won't open again," he said.
"I support the plan to vaccinate the local population early - it's only right that we ensure they are safe. But we must open because tourism is what people in Phuket know," he said.
After October, if Thailand inoculates 70% of medical personnel and at-risk groups, there could be more easing of restrictions, with a possible waiving of quarantine completely, Health Minister Anutin Charnvirankul said.
For taxi driver Yai, October is a long way off. Meanwhile, even local tourists will be scarce in the hot season and during the monsoon, he said.
"Right now, there are some tourists on the weekend, but during the week I am lucky to get even one or two clients daily," he said.
"The plan to vaccinate the population in Phuket and open up for foreign tourists is a good plan. We have suffered enough."
(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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