Pandemic Tourist Visas Shelved in Favor of Local Vacationers

Patong Beach on Phuket Island is cordoned off from the public on June 8, 2020.
Patong Beach on Phuket Island is cordoned off from the public on June 8, 2020.

BANGKOK — A visa program that would allow foreigners to visit Thailand and bring in the much needed tourism revenues was delayed until later this month for the sake of Thai tourists who wish to vacation without concerns of possible virus outbreak, officials said Thursday.

National Security Council sec-gen Nattapol Nakpanich, who oversees border reopening measures, said the arrival of Chinese tourists under the Special Tourist Visa policy was pushed back to allow locals to celebrate Phuket’s famed vegetarian festival worry-free.

The delay of the Special Tourist Visa, or STV, was announced by the government Tuesday, just two days before the first group of 300 Chinese visitors were supposed to land on the resort island.

Read: ‘Special Tourist Visa’ Can Launch October At Earliest: Ministry

“The arrival of the first batch of tourists has been postponed to some day after Oct. 25,” Gen. Nattapol said. “We have to delay because there will be a vegetarian festival from Oct. 16 to 25 and many Thais will visit Phuket.”

He continued, “Many Thais are concerned about it, but we will continue to maintain the same measures as approved earlier by the government’s pandemic response center.”

Nattapol’s remarks appear to contradict the reasons stated earlier by local officials, in which they said preparations for quarantine and screening foreign tourists were yet incomplete.

It is also unclear why the vegetarian festival, or Kin Je, played a role in postponing the tourist arrivals; under the STV regulations, newly arrived tourists must quarantine inside their hotel for at least 14 days and take coronavirus tests before they are allowed to visit other parts of the island.

A man takes a coronavirus test in Phuket province on Oct. 7, 2020.

Narit Kanjanopas, spokesman of the tourism ministry, said the measures to prevent infections are in fact ready, but it was some local residents who were still worried about the border reopening.

He also confirmed that foreign tourists will be allowed to enter the country only after Oct. 25.

“It has to be after Oct. 25, as Gen. Nattapol said,” Narit said. “Local authorities and residents asked us to delay it to let the vegetarian festival go ahead.”

“I understand that many Thais are concerned about their arrival, but it is necessary to restart the tourism industry as well.”

The confusion and flip-flops around the STV have already taken its toll. A tourism trade guild representative reported that some of the Thai tourists had cancelled their trips to Phuket for the upcoming long weekends.

“My hotel alone sees three cancellations already. My friends also told me similar,” Kongsak Khoopongsakorn, president of Thai Southern Hotels Association, said.

“This kind of mass cancellation had already happened in August, when the government proposed to use Phuket to experiment tourism reopening,” he said.

Under the STV program, foreigners would be allowed to visit Thailand for up to 270 days upon spending a 14-day quarantine inside a hotel, as well as paying for all the costs involved such as accommodation fees and insurance.

The first group of Chinese tourists who participated in the STV and already booked their stay on Phuket would not be given any refunds for their hotel fees and other costs, since the STV was merely delayed and not canceled at this time, the Tourism Authority of Thailand said on Wednesday.

Nattapol, the National Security Council sec-gen, acknowledged that the arrival of foreign tourists may pose a risk of coronavirus infection, though he said he is confident that it will not trigger a new wave of outbreak.

Phuket’s Kin Je Festival is held annually in October and is best known for its parade featuring spiritual channelers piercing themselves with blades into their bodies.

Officials estimated that this year’s festival will generate more than 200 million baht in revenue from domestic vacationers.