As Thailand reopens, it looks to better days with new bio, circular, green tourism model

As Thailand reopens, it looks to better days with new bio, circular, green tourism model
by Yeoh Siew Hoon,
in Destination Marketing,

“Covid has taught Thailand a huge lesson in balance,” says deputy governor Numfhon Boonyawat

WITH Thailand reopening to vaccinated travellers from all countries on November 1, the country is certainly looking forward to better days. But one woman is determined it also builds back better. During WiT Experience Singapore, Numfhon Boonyawat, deputy governor for policy and planning, Tourism Authority of Thailand, shares her perspectives on lessons learnt and insights into the new tourism model Thailand wishes to pursue.

“This period (pandemic) has challenged all of us to be the best we can be – to be generous and sincere to help other people.” Numfhon Boonyawat

Q: I understand
your name Numfhon means “rain” in Thai. Well, it’s certainly been a stormy time
for Thailand’s travel and tourism. What’s the story behind your name?

I was born when it
was raining and my mother had just read a novel about a doctor named Numfhon,
who was kind, smart and good, so I think she wanted me to grow up to be like

Q: You’ve been
in TAT since 1987 and you were appointed deputy governor, policy and planning,
two years ago, right before Covid struck, so great timing – because this has
certainly been an opportunity to plan and put policies in place to ensure the
right kind of recovery. Before we get into how you see Thailand’s recovery,
what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt during this time?

This period has
challenged all of us to be the best we can be – to be generous and sincere to
help other people. I am an idealist at heart and Covid has taught us as humans
to be kind to each other, and that travel is an important part of life, and we
need to help each other travel safely again.

I’ve been
frustrated by past thinking in our industry – to see travel as % of GDP, how
many arrivals we are getting, how much money we are making – to measure tourism
success with those financial metrics.

Tourism is more
than that – it’s to help people enjoy their trips whether to Singapore or to
Thailand, and ensure their experiences are connected to the well-being of local
communities, a circular model. That’s the kind of recovery we would like.

Q: That’s very
idealistic thinking at a time when businesses have been struggling for nearly two
years and a lot have shut down. How has this messaging been accepted by local

Actually Covid has
made many people in Thailand rethink tourism – it made people realise how
important tourism is, and also the dangers when we depend only on tourism.
International tourists, more than 60% of visitors, and China, more than 28% of
visitors …

This is the best
time to reposition Thailand and I’ve found that when I share my vision with
industry members, I find them agreeing and applauding – maybe many people feel
the same way, and they just need a champion.

But yes, it’s
challenging, it’s hard to get people to stop running when they’ve been running
the same way for 30 years. But now Covid has forced us to stop, so this is the
perfect time to restart – restart slow, get it right before taking the next

Q: We will talk
more about the Thai government’s BCG (Bio, Circular, Green) Tourism model later
– for now, let’s talk about more practical matters like reopening. Phuket
Sandbox opened on July 1, and slowly other provinces are opening. What’s the
update so far?

Since Phuket
Sandbox opened from July 1 to October 19, the number of international tourist arrivals
amounted to 51,748 tourists (average 475 tourist/day), infected 164 tourists (0.32%) found
at the screening points and the number of international tourists who travel
from Phuket to extension areas from August 16 to October
19, amounted to 1,586 tourists (average 25 tourist/day).

Top 5 most international tourist arrivals in Phuket Sandbox are:

1.  United State of America 5,901 tourists (11.40%)
2.  Israel 4,927 tourists (9.52%)
3.  Germany 4,280 tourists (8.27%)
4.  United Kingdom 4,060 tourists (7.85%)
5.  France 3,773 tourists (7.29%).
Average booking in advance is 18.6 days, average stay is 8.4 days and generate revenue about 3,104 million baht (US$103 million)

Since Samui Plus project opened from July 15 to October 19 the number of international tourist arrivals amounted to 1,462 tourists (average 16 tourist/day), infected 6 tourists (0.4%) found at the screening points

Top 5 most international tourist arrivals in Samui Plus Model+Sandbox are:

1.  Germany 244 tourists (16.69%)
2.  France 205 tourists (14.02%)
3.  United Kingdom 141 tourists (9.64%)
4.  United State of America 100 tourists (6.84%)
5.  Netherlands 75 tourists (5.12%)  
Generate revenue about 87.7 million baht (US$2.9 million)

This is Thailand’s plan to open other areas in four stages:

Pilot stages (October 1-31,
Phuket, Surat Thani,
Phan Nga, Krabi

1st stage (November 1-30, 2021):
Prachuap Khiri Khan, Krabi, Phan Nga, Chiang Mai, Petchaburi, Chonburi,
Bangkok, Loei, Burirum, Ranong, Nong Khai, Udon Thani

2nd stage (December 1-31, 2021): Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, Lamphun, Phrae,
Sukhothai, Petchabun, Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, Samut Prakan, Trat, Rayong,
Khon Kaen, Nakhon Ratchasima, Nakhon Si Thammarat, Trang, Phatthalung,
Songkhla, Yala, Narathiwat

3rd stage (From January 1, 2021 onwards): Surin, Sa Kaeo, Chanthaburi, Tak, Nakhon Phanom,
Mukdahan, Bueng Kan, Ubon Ratchathani, Nan, Kanchanaburi, Ratchaburi and Satun

Moreover, Thailand
plans to end coronavirus quarantine requirements
for vaccinated visitors from 10 low-risk countries starting November 1.

Q: What’s the
key lesson learnt?

Tourism always takes from the environment, but now it’s the time to think about what we can do to give back to the environment. How can we use tourism as a tool to promote a different lifestyle that incorporates a more sustainable way of living?

In conclusion I feel Covid has taught Thailand a huge lesson on balance. We relayed too much on the international market, we relayed too much on the Chinese market. We didn’t diversify our reach because things were going well. But putting all your eggs into one basket never goes well and Covid has shown us the failure in our ways. It’s given us a chance to reflect and change, to learn from our past mistakes.

For Phuket Sandbox it’s just the beginning. It was important we take the first step with Phuket and to explain to the local community there why we started with their island. We also had to work hard to ensure the safety of visitors as well as local people was protected. By setting up the Sandbox, it also allows others to learn from us – during this period, all of us in tourism have to share to help each other. 

The key lesson learnt – there is an opportunity for us to create a new kind of experience for travellers to Thailand. 

Q: Back to the BCG Model – you’ve formed a strategic partnership with TOCA, Thailand Organic Consumers Association, to support their initiative. What do you hope to achieve with this partnership?

Food is the
perfect way to start with – everyone loves Thai food, it’s yummy, spicy. The
ingredients, the dishes, there are lots of stories to tell. The platform that
TOCA has built makes it very tangible – it connects consumers with restaurants
and hotels, and farmers, and consumers earn Earth points when dining at these

It sounds easy, but it’s an amazing story of a 10-year effort by Khun Arrut Navaraj to reconnect Thailand back to its farming roots, and to share that with consumers and travellers.

TAT’s role is to
generate consumer demand, their role is to build supply and the tech platform
that underpins it.

Q: What’s the
biggest challenge you think in getting adoption of this platform?

Changing people’s
perceptions and mindset. For example, even the Phuket experience can be
different with this platform – takes it beyond just a beach resort. Even Phuket
people are surprised by what they have in terms of organic farming and produce.

Consumers can
become more empowered because they feel they are part of a virtuous cycle of

Another challenge
is, making sure people get onboard for the right reasons, that they are
sincere, and not doing it because it’s a trend. I’m frustrated by that – people
thinking they can get money because it’s a trend. You have to be sincere and
genuine about making an impact.

Q: What can the
big OTAs (online travel agents) do to help Thailand recover better?

That they should
also share their profits with the industry and not charge the suppliers too
much. Yes, they spend a lot of money on their tech and demand generation, but
if they can make a little less profit and share with the industry, that would
be a good first step. And to identify “green” hotels and promote them so that
their customers can also earn Earth points.

Q: That’s very
idealistic but then you did say at the start you are an idealist. What’s the
biggest thing you’ve had to unlearn during this time – after 30 years working
in Thai tourism?

That not every Thai province has to be opened to tourism but they can still benefit from tourism to the country without tourists physically being there. Like this event, I can share my views without being in Singapore with you and hope my views make an impression on your audience.

Watch full interview here.

Featured image:
WiT’s Yoeh Siew Hoon in conversation with TAT’s Numfhon Boonyawat