Luring Foreign Tourists Back to Thailand Will Be Very Slow

A tourists on Koh Samui on Oct. 1, 2021, the first day of the Samui Sandbox.

Thailand took a major step in trying to revive its devastated tourism industry on Friday as it reduced quarantine time for fully vaccinated travelers arriving to Thailand from 15 days to 7. No one should expect a quick surge in tourism anytime soon and should be cautious in treading the path to tourism recovery, however. 

Among major factors that would work against any quick rebound are troublesome paperwork, uncertainties of the durability of the new relaxation measures, and continued shutdown of pubs and bars in highly-infected areas, including Bangkok.

Let’s start with the still lengthy and costly alternative quarantine requirements. Although the length has been halved, seven-days alternative quarantine inside a hotel room where you can venture outside will still be a major deterrent factor for any foreign tourists to consider long before they decide to fly to Thailand. With the government’s plan to assess the COVID-19 situations after two weeks, it’s highly recommended that they send a clear signal as soon as possible if all quarantine requirements will be fully lifted on Nov. 1 as some speculated or not. The truth is, it will be up to how well the pandemic has been contained in the next two to three weeks.

The number of new infections nationwide is still precariously high at 10,000 plus and death toll around a hundred per day is still high by international standards and will be factored in by some potential foreign tourists currently mulling a visit to Thailand. The ranking of Thailand’s COVID-19 situations, currently at 28th worst hit, will affect possible quarantine time upon the return of these foreign tourists to their home country.

A tourists on Koh Samui on Oct. 2, 2021. Koh Samui’s Sandbox program allows vaccinated visitors to travel freely on the island, as well as nearby Koh Tao and Koh Pha Ngan.

Virtual paperwork such as the online Certificate of Entry (COE) that everyone entering Thailand must fill should be made more user friendly and quicker to process.  Last week when this writer returned to Thailand from Austria, the Thai Embassy’s website in Vienna stated that the form will be processed within 72 hours. That should be reduced to 48 if not 24 hours. (I was unable to complete the forms and had to call the Thai Embassy from Vienna Airport that I only have eight minutes left before missing the flight. Fortunately the Embassy’s staff were agile and able to send the forms to me via email at the last minute.)

Hotel quarantine is no fun as you cannot leave the room – it’s basically a glorified state-sanctioned incarceration. When I returned from Vienna last week after a speaking engagement I developed a rash, swollen eyelids and allergies on other parts of my body very soon after entering my hotel room. I suspect it was due to the over-chemicalized environment due to anti-coronavirus cleaning. The nurse working in collaboration with the hotel administered anti-anxiety pills (hydroxyzine) for me instead of anti-allergy medication. 

Many who decided to travel to Bangkok, which was the most visited city on earth pre-coronavirus in 2019 with 22.7 million foreign visitors (arrivals nationwide in 2019 was 39.8 millions), will continue to be disturbed by the fact that restaurants do not serve alcohol and pubs and bars as well as red light districts continue to be closed. Many of the estimate two hundred thousand sex workers continue to be unemployed as a result. This is a big factor for drinkers as people want to drink at restaurants, pubs or bars on vacation and not inside their hotel rooms. 

A tourists on Koh Samui on Oct. 2, 2021.

As long as the ban continues, along with the curfew now slightly reduced by an hour to 10pm to 4am, it will work against a quick foreign tourist rebound, particularly among younger foreign tourists who frequent places like Khao San Road which will continue to be dead due to the alcohol ban. To many foreign tourists, a dry vacation is no vacation. It’s time for the Thai government to introduce COVID-19 passport and ATK test as a pass to enter pubs and bars, both for Thais and locals so these businesses could be reopened after many months of shutdown. Other countries have done it and there’s no reason why the Thai government should wait. 

Despite the bold move by the government, uncertainties loom large as we do not know how the COVID-19 situation will be two or three weeks from now with some foreign tourists returning. The re-opening of Thailand might be too little too late for this year’s high tourist season as it chiefly was delayed by the slow inoculation of people in Thailand. The government of Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha has failed to vaccinate Thais quickly enough over the past months, leading to a delay in restarting Thailand to mass tourism. 

As of Friday, less than one third of the population, or less than 20 million Thais out of 70 million have been fully inoculated. Less than half of the population, or 32 millions received their first jab. Now the last thing we want to see is a failed plan to reopen Thailand to foreign tourists after a few weeks from now. Being one of the world’s major tourist destinations cannot and should not be taken for granted.