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Coronavirus

Thai hotel tycoon wants priority COVID vaccines for tour staff

Minor International chair Heinecke tells govt to rethink shot plan to save industry

U.S.-born billionaire William Heinecke asked the Thai prime minister to let hospitality sector workers be among the first to be inoculated. (Source photos by AP)

BANGKOK -- The chairman of Bangkok-based hotel and restaurants empire Minor International has proposed a fast track vaccination program for hotel employees and tourism-related workers in a bid to help revive the industry at a time when Thailand is still struggling to control a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

In an open letter sent to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, William Heinecke, also the group's founder, suggested the government include hospitality staff and hotel employees along with airline operators, pilots and flight attendants as part of the first group to be inoculated.

"Such people continue to operate on the front lines, interacting with international and domestic travelers, risking contraction and further transmission," Heinecke wrote in the letter, which was also reported by local media.

"Prioritizing them along with health care workers and other high-risk groups for the vaccine would provide a necessary layer of protection for the country," he said. "It is imperative the Thai government recognizes the significance of the hospitality sector on the nation's economy and the well-being of its citizenry."

However, the Thai government seems reluctant to accept the proposal. "The premier has not yet reacted to Mr. Heineche's suggestion. At this stage there's no change in the vaccine schedule and vaccine distribution will go forward as planned," government spokesperson Anucha Burapachaisri told Nikkei Asia.

Thailand's crucial tourism sector has been severely weakened by the COVID-19 pandemic.   © Reuters

Heincke's proposal of prioritizing tourism-related workers reflects the veteran businessman's concerns on the Thai tourism and hospitality industries that have taken a second hard hit by the pandemic with more hotels and tour operators forced to close.

According to the Thai Hotels Association, hundreds of 3 and 4 star hotels have been shutting down nationwide as they cannot handle the cost of staying open without foreign tourists. Many are withdrawing permanently, leaving more than a million hospitality staff jobless.

Heinecke, 72, was born in the U.S. and came to Thailand as a child. He oversees one of the most successful Southeast Asian hospitality-to-retail groups that controls more than 500 hotels and resorts, over 2,200 restaurants and nearly 500 retail stores in 62 countries as of March 2020. According to Forbes, Heinecke's net worth totals $1.6 billion, making him the 20th richest person in the kingdom.

But the pandemic has taken a toll on the conglomerate as Minor International posted a net loss of 15.8 billion baht ($530 million) for the first nine months of 2020, reversing from a net profit of 6.9 billion baht for the same period the previous year. Its revenue more than halved to 44.6 billion baht for the period.

The Thai government plans to begin its vaccination program in late February, when the first lot of 2 million doses of imported Sinovac shots are due to arrive. A second lot from U.K.-based AstraZeneca of 26 million doses is due to arrive in May with another 35 million doses coming later.

Medical personnel are tapped as the group with first priority to be vaccinated.

Apart from prioritizing hospitality staff, Heinecke also proposed that the government urgently seek more vaccine options, expedite the shot rollout and allow quarantine-free travel for inoculated foreign tourists to support the travel industry that facing a grim outlook for the second straight year.

Heinecke's emphasized Thailand's heavy reliance on foreign tourists, which brought in two-thirds of the total 3 trillion baht in revenue that Thailand gained from tourism in 2019 before COVID-19 hit the country.

His pleas come as Thailand is lagging its regional peers. Singapore started administering shots in December while Indonesia and Myanmar began their vaccination programs in January.

"Accelerating the distribution of vaccines is the key to getting travel back to normal," Heinecke wrote. "Therefore, we would like to step up our help and effort to support this next phase of recovery."

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