Top: Pattaya’s Walking Street during the coronavirus pandemic.
BANGKOK — Here’s a pro tip when you see headlines proclaiming Thailand is set to reopen its border for foreign tourists in whatever month: take it with a grain of salt, because the people responsible don’t know when either.
Even as different agencies are throwing soundbites of plans to admit visitors to the country – from the so-called bubble agreement to the latest proposal of ‘limited tourism’ on Phuket island – officials interviewed for this story said they have yet to determine whether Thailand is ready for a reopening at all.
“We’re working with relevant stakeholders to finalize the plan,” Tourism Authority of Thailand governor Yuthasak Supasorn said. “The principle is already approved by the Prime Minister, but it will take sometime before we can execute it, evaluate it, and expand it to other regions.”
A prominent tourism business federation also threw cold water on the optimistic outlook that foreign arrivals could start any time soon.
“Even if the plan is approved today, it will take some time for hotels and airlines to prepare themselves,” president of Association of Thai Travel Agents Vichit Prakobgosol said. “We also have to market it to potential tourists.”
Thailand placed a ban on most international flights since April, and only Thais and certain groups of foreign nationals may fly into the country. The effect is devastating for the tourism industry, which generated up to 3 trillion baht in 2019.
Tourism authorities estimate Thailand will lose 1.69 trillion baht in revenues due to the travel restrictions amid the pandemic this year.
The government’s 22-billion baht domestic tourism stimulus program, which gives aways 40 percent subsidy for room rates and 600 baht per night cash to spend on other services, also failed to recover the lost revenue from international tourists, according to official figures.
So Many Plans, So Little Result
The government had come up with several initiatives to reboot the industry. In July, officials pushed for a “travel bubble” to allow visitor exchanges with several countries where the coronavirus was under control.
The plan soon fell apart when the countries slated for the agreement, including South Korea and Japan, witnessed a resurgence in the coronavirus.
The latest effort by the government, called “Phuket Model,” would also permit visitors from the countries where there has been no outbreak for at least 30 days to stay on the resort island province.
The catch: they must spend 14 days in their quarantine hotel rooms first.
“We’re trying to leave our door ajar,” TAT governor Yuthasak said. “Many countries are eyeing to pull tourists into their countries right now, so we have to act fast.”
He added, “However, this doesn’t mean that the safety of Thai people is compromised, every step we take must be approved by the government and health experts.”
On Sunday, tourism minister Pipat Ratchakitprakan expanded the proposal and said foreign tourists who tested negative for the coronavirus would be allowed to visit other parts of the country
Under the proposal, foreign tourists with negative test results would be able to travel to other parts of the country if they spend another seven days in quarantine.
“If we can proceed with the plans, around two millions tourists would come in starting this October to next year’s March,” Pipat said. “We will begin area quarantine on islands first since they are easier to manage.”
But it is unclear how much travel can take place without the coronavirus vaccines – and that remains a dubious prospect. At the moment, Russia is the only country that announced the discovery of vaccines, though international observers doubt the claim.
Even then, Russian authorities said their vaccines are only approved for domestic use first. The World Health Organization predicted that the vaccines would only be commonly available by early next year at the earliest.
Any decisions to reopen the country to tourism would also have to navigate the bureaucracy managing the pandemic responses. There’s the tourism ministry, the foreign affairs ministry, the health ministry, the immigration bureau, and the Prime Minister himself – just to name a few hoops one must jump through.
Khananart Muennu, the spokesman of the tourism ministry, confirmed that the government’s coronavirus response center has the final say on border reopening.
“Everything depends on the Center for Covid-19 Situation Administration,” Khananart said. “We can’t really tell the date right now. The safety of Thai people is our primary concern.”