The Thai Prime Minister announced yesterday that from 1st November, fully vaccinated travellers from at least 10 countries will be able to visit Thailand without any quarantine requirements.
The move was designed to help reinvigorate the tourism industry which, prior to the pandemic, had almost 40 million foreign arrivals each year and contributed almost 20% of the national GDP.
Last year just 6.7 million foreign visitors came to Thailand, the vast majority in the first two months prior to the lockdown. Estimates for numbers this year have been below 500,000 prior to the announcement last night.
Thailand has been working to attract tourists back to the country and launched the pilot Phuket Sandbox on 1st July. Up until 11th October just 45,914 people had arrived in Phuket for the programme.
Different schemes were launched for Koh Samui and for areas of Krabi and Phang Nga provinces which attracted even smaller numbers.
Plans to reopen other parts of Thailand, including Bangkok, hit stumbling blocks due to increasing Covid-19 cases, especially with the Delta variant, and slow vaccination programme.
The Prime Ministers announcement is an ambitious plan to attract tourists back to Thailand as high season rapidly approaches. It is clear that another lost high season would be disastrous for the industry and wider economy. However a further significant outbreak could cause immense damage.
Full details of the scheme have not yet been announced. It is however significant that the low-risk countries identified in the announcement included China, the U.K. and U.S. three of the largest markets for tourists to Thailand pre-pandemic.
There is currently a 7 day quarantine for fully vaccinated travellers entering Thailand but for those entering a Sandbox area there are more freedoms and they do not need to undertake a room or resort quarantine.
However they cannot travel outside of the area until 7 days have elapsed. They must also stop in an approved hotel and undertake at least two PCR tests in those 7 days. This period is deemed to be their 7 day quarantine.
Outside of Sandbox areas, fully vaccinated travellers, arriving by air, must stay in an approved quarantine facility for 7 days. It is 10 days quarantine for those who are not fully vaccinated.
Will Tourists Return Quickly?
An impossible question to answer at the moment but we can certainly look at some of the signs.
Stocks in tourism related businesses in Thailand suddenly saw an increase in value and the Thai currency strengthened following the announcement, as there was increased confidence in the sector for the immediate future.
The recent change that resulted in Koh Samui becoming a Sandbox destination resulted in increased bookings in the first 10 days following the announcement that matched the total bookings from 15th July to 30th September. The reality is however that less than 1,000 people suddenly decided to travel to Samui.
Many foreign travellers may be nervous about undertaking travel to Southeast Asia until they believe that the pandemic has at least been controlled enough to give them confidence that more outbreaks will affect their plans.
People are rightly nervous about committing to an expensive trip that may get cancelled at the last minute by changes to regulations either at home or in Thailand. Even worse could be a change while they are on the trip, potentially stranding them in a foreign country, or causing disruption to their journey.
Another factor is the low vaccination rate in many parts of Thailand.
The Sandbox areas all had priority access to inoculations to meet the 70% target of the population vaccinated. Thailand as a whole however has only 33% of the population fully vaccinated.
Travellers, even those fully vaccinated themselves, may be reluctant to travel to a location with low rates of inoculation and that may be seen as an area of higher risk of future outbreaks.
The plan also relies on there being sufficient flights available from the identified countries.
Tourists from many countries have been used to regular flights and options for travel.
Thai Airways alone had two daily, direct, flights from the UK to Thailand prior to the pandemic. There were also numerous other indirect options through travel hubs in the middle east and Asia.
There are very few available flights currently planned with some routes just having one or two flights per week. Significant numbers will not return until the flexibility of travel is available again.
The reality is that Thailand does not expect to see almost 40 million tourists visit in 2022 or even in 2023.
Key figures in the country have been talking for a number of months about a future that sees less tourists but higher value trips, bringing more money into the economy in a more sustainable manner.
If Thailand can achieve 20 million international arrivals in 2022 it will be seen as a major triumph by many.
The days of cheap, mass tourism in Thailand may be over, at least for the short-term.
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