Thailand opened its borders to vaccinated visitors for the first time in 18 months this week, as the country struggles to boost an economy still languishing due to the pandemic.
Visitors from more than 60 countries considered “low risk” are now allowed to visit the Southeast Asian nation, with quarantine essentially scrapped.
Tourism and Sports Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn said Thailand had been preparing for the country’s reopening for tourism with the opening of travel lanes such as the Phuket Sandbox. He said opening the borders is to ensure Thailand remains in “competition” to draw tourists, adding that imposing quarantines will deter visitors elsewhere.
Thailand is heavily reliant on tourism, which before the pandemic accounted for around one-fifth of the country’s GDP and 20% of its overall employment, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
But experts and business owners remain cautious about the reopening.
Pravit Rojanaphruk, a journalist who works for the Bangkok-based news website Khaosod English, said the reopening could create setbacks for advances made in Thailand’s battle against the pandemic.
The journalist noted that COVID test kits are not readily available, telling VOA that some visitors “will also likely disregard COVID-19 prevention measures such as social distancing and for foreign tourists the wearing of sanitary masks.”
Also, Thailand’s reopening comes as anti-government protests continue in Bangkok. Protesters have been calling for reform, targeting the role of the monarchy and criticizing the government’s handling of the pandemic. Many have called for Prayuth Chan-o-cha, Thailand’s prime minister, to resign. He refuses to do so.
Demonstrations that initially erupted in August of last year sometimes led to violence and skirmishes between protesters and riot police. The current demonstrations, which are much smaller in size, often occur in the district of Din Daeng, the city’s second-largest slum community.
Vaccinations allow reopening
Health experts say Thailand initially did well in the fight against the spread of COVID-19 but that a surge of cases caught officials by surprise in April, prompting authorities to call for months of restrictions, lockdowns and curfews. During its third wave, Thailand was seeing more than 20,000 infections per day.
With a population of nearly 70 million, Thailand has vaccinated around 54% of its people, according to government figures. Overall, 1.9 million people have been infected, with nearly 20,000 deaths.
Although restrictions remain, the speed of the country’s vaccine rollout in recent months, sometimes exceeding 1 million per day, made it easier for the Thai government to reopen its borders.
Visitors must take a COVID-19 test upon arrival and wait for the results in a pre-booked hotel. If the results are negative, they are free to travel to a wide range of destinations throughout the country, authorities say. Unvaccinated visitors are still subjected to a seven-day quarantine in an approved hotel.
Forty-six nations were initially listed for November’s reopening, but at the last minute, more were added. Rojanaphruk says the decision was to attract more visitors to support the ailing economy.
“Many people [have been] severely affected by COVID-19’s impact on the economy, [and] will definitely be focused on how successful the reopening of Thailand would be and whether the benefits will trickle down to the working class,” he said.
“The government cannot choose to keep shutting the country from foreign tourists indefinitely as tourism income constitutes around 20% of the GDP. Adding more countries to the list in the last minute definitely has to do with attempts to get more foreign tourists,” he said.
Thani Thongphakdi, the permanent secretary of the Thailand Ministry of Foreign Affairs, signed the notification adding 17 more countries after “further consideration into the global situation of the spread of COVID-19 virus in parallel with health and socio-economic parameters.”
But the Rojanaphruk believes strict restrictions could be enforced once again if Thailand experiences a surge in cases.
“The government has alluded to the fact that if the situation gets out of control, they are willing to re-impose a lockdown and that the situation will be assessed on a weekly basis,” he said.
Rungrueng Kitphati, Thailand’s Minister of Public Health spokesman, said in August that herd immunity is not far away, because vaccines continue to be administered in large numbers each day, local media reported.
Thailand was used to seeing around 40 million international arrivals each year. But it was reported that in 2020 alone, arrivals dropped by 83%.
The islands of Phuket and Koh Samui have already been open to visitors. The “Phuket Sandbox” was launched four months ago on July 1, while the “Samui Plus” scheme followed in August. Both schemes are initiatives started by the Tourism Authority of Thailand and have allowed fully vaccinated visitors to skip hotel quarantine.
More than 6,000 international arrivals entered Thailand Monday, while the Tourism Authority of Thailand, or TAT, forecast that 1 million foreign visitors would enter the country from now until March 2022, reported the Bangkok Post, the country’s English-language daily newspaper.
Some Thai businesses have been eager for foreign arrivals to return, but caution remains for others on life after the reopening.
Vons Sochi, an Australian expatriate who owns VonsFitness247 gym in Bangkok, says the pandemic has crippled a lot of businesses. He thinks it is understandable why people are cautious.
“It relies a lot on tourists. COVID-19 has taken away a lot of disposable income. Everyone is holding onto their money, in case of another lockdown,” he said.
Nicolas Ziade, owner of Mulligans Bar on Bangkok’s Khao San Road, voiced optimism about the reopening.
“I’m relieved. It’s going to take time probably around three months to see people walking Khao San Road during the day. I expect to see an increase in foreigners which will be great and will increase daytime trade.
“It has been very difficult. I lost my job and had no income for six months,” he added.
Pratchaya Julapun, marketing manager at the Bandara Group, which runs furnished apartments in Bangkok and Phuket, said there are concerns over future restrictions but believes the worst is over for Thailand.
“We are quite certain the situation will be better than last time. We believe it’s time to start travel again with a new normal life,” he told VOA.