Thailand this week opened its borders to vaccinated visitors for the first time in 18 months, as the country still struggles to boost a sluggish economy caused by the pandemic.
Visitors from more than 60 countries considered “low risk” are now allowed to travel to the Southeast Asian nation, with the quarantine essentially abolished.
Tourism and Sports Minister Fifat Ratchakitprakarn said Thailand was preparing to reopen the country for tourism with the opening of travel lanes such as the Phuket sandbox. He said the opening of the borders is to ensure that Thailand remains in the “competition” to attract tourists, adding that imposing a quarantine would deter visitors elsewhere.
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Thailand is heavily dependent on tourism, which before the pandemic accounted for about a fifth of the country’s GDP and 20% of its overall employment.
But experts and business owners are cautious about reopening.
Praveet Roznaphruk, a journalist working for Bangkok-based news website Khosod English, said the reopening could be a setback for Thailand’s progress in the fight against the pandemic.
The journalist noted that COVID testing kits are not readily available, telling VOA that some visitors will “disregard even COVID-19 prevention measures such as social distancing and the wearing of sanitary masks for foreign tourists.”
Also, Thailand’s reopening comes as anti-government protests continue in Bangkok. Protesters are calling for reform, targeting the role of the monarchy and criticizing the government’s handling of the pandemic. Many have called for Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha to resign. He refuses to do so.
The demonstrations, which started in August last year, have sometimes led to violence and clashes between protesters and riot police. Current demonstrations, which are much smaller in size, often take place in the Din Daeng district, the city’s second largest slum community.
Vaccination allows reopening
Health experts say Thailand initially did well in the fight against the spread of COVID-19, but a surge of cases in April took officials by surprise, prompting authorities to call for months of restrictions, lockdowns and curfews fell. During its third wave, Thailand was seeing more than 20,000 infections daily.
With a population of about 70 million, Thailand has vaccinated about 54% of its people, according to government figures. Altogether 1.9 million people have been infected, with nearly 20,000 deaths.
Although restrictions remain in place, the pace of the country’s vaccine rollouts in recent months, sometimes exceeding 1 million per day, makes it easier for the Thai government to reopen its borders.
Visitors will have to take a COVID-19 test on arrival and wait for the results at a pre-booked hotel. If the results are negative, they are free to travel to multiple destinations across the country, officials say. Unvaccinated visitors are still subjected to a seven-day quarantine at an approved hotel.
Forty-six nations were initially listed for November’s reopening, but at the last minute, more were added. Rosnafruk says the decision was made to attract more visitors to support the ailing economy.
“A lot of people [have been] Seriously affected by the impact of COVID-19 on the economy, [and] Of course the focus will be on how successful the reopening of Thailand will be and whether it will benefit the working class,” he said.
“The government cannot choose to keep the country closed from foreign tourists for an indefinite period as tourism income accounts for about 20% of GDP. Adding more countries to the list at the last minute certainly has to do with efforts to attract more foreign tourists,” he said.
Thani Thongphakdi, Permanent Secretary of Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, signed the notification adding 17 more countries after “further consideration of the global situation of the spread of the COVID-19 virus in parallel with health and socio-economic parameters”.
But Rosnafruk believes strict restrictions could be imposed once again if Thailand experiences a surge in cases.
“The government has pointed to the fact that they are ready to re-impose the lockdown if the situation gets out of control and that the situation will be assessed on a weekly basis,” he said.
Local media reported that Thailand’s public health spokesman, Rungrueng Kitfati, said in August that herd immunity was not far off, because of the large number of vaccines given every day.
Thailand saw approximately 40 million international arrivals each year. But it was reported that arrivals have declined by 83% in 2020 alone.
The islands of Phuket and Koh Samui are already open to visitors. The “Phuket Sandbox” was launched four months earlier on July 1, while the “Samui Plus” plan started in August. Both schemes are initiatives launched by Thailand’s tourism authority and allow fully vaccinated visitors to skip hotel quarantine.
The country’s English-language daily newspaper, the Bangkok Post, reported that more than 6,000 international arrivals entered Thailand on Monday, while the Tourism Authority of Thailand, or TAT, estimated that 1 million foreign visitors would enter the country by March 2022.
Some Thai businesses are keen on foreign arrivals, but others are cautious in their lives once they reopen.
Von Sochi, an Australian expat who owns VonsFitness247 Gym in Bangkok, says the pandemic has paralyzed a lot of businesses. He thinks it’s understandable why people are cautious.
“It depends a lot on the tourists. COVID-19 has taken away a lot of disposable income. In case of another lockdown, everyone is holding onto their money,” he said.
Nicholas Ziede, owner of Mulligans Bar on Bangkok’s Khao San Road, expressed optimism about the reopening.
“I am relieved. It is probably going to take about three months to see people walking on Khao San Road during the day. I expect to see an increase in foreigners which will be great and there will be an increase in day trading.
“It has been very difficult. I lost my job and had no income for six months,” he said.
Prachaya Julapun, marketing manager at Bandra Group, which runs furnished apartments in Bangkok and Phuket, said there are concerns about restrictions in the future but believes the worst is over for Thailand.
“We are quite sure that the situation will be better than last time. We believe it is time to start the journey again with life to a new normal,” he told VOA.