Thai beaches won’t reopen fully until vaccines become available

Tourists swim on a beach in Phuket, Thailand on March 26. (AP pic)

BANGKOK: Thailand, which is set to welcome the first batch of foreign tourists in six months, is unlikely to fully throw open its popular beaches and national parks to overseas visitors until a vaccine against the coronavirus is widely available.

Authorities will probably allow the entry of only a limited number of foreign visitors for a few months before considering further easing of curbs, Chairat Trirattanajarasporn, president of the Tourism Council of Thailand, told reporters in Bangkok Wednesday.

The council, which represents local tourism operators, doesn’t expect full reopening of the borders until vaccines become accessible, he said.

About 150 Chinese nationals will arrive at Phuket on Oct 8, the first set of foreign tourists to visit Thailand after the pandemic forced the tourism-reliant nation to close its international borders in March.

The plan could provide a model for how other tourist-reliant economies around the world – from New Zealand to Greece – could reopen more safely to international travellers.

“It’s good for the country to reopen even if it’s just for trial,” Chairat said.

“Once we’ve tested our reopening plan for a month, we can assess how to go forward and allow more visitors to come in.”

The cap on foreign visitors is aimed at testing the nation’s readiness for a wider tourism re-opening in the coming months as Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha steps up efforts to revive the ailing tourism sector, which makes up about a fifth of the nation’s economy.

Mandatory quarantine

Tourists will be quarantined for two weeks on arrivals and will need to stay for a minimum of 90 days as authorities seek to maintain Thailand’s relative success in containing the pandemic despite it being the first place outside China to get the virus.

The cabinet this week also extended a state of emergency until the end of October to allow the government to enforce mandatory quarantines and streamline disease-control plans without multiple approvals from various agencies.

While the tourism council expects about 50,000 tourists to visit Thailand in the fourth quarter, full-year arrivals are seen down 83% at 6.74 million, Chairat said, adding revenue will plunge 82.6% to 336.5 billion baht.

The long absence of foreign visitors in famed tourist hotspots will shutter more businesses in the coming months, he said.

“Businesses that rely on foreign tourists, especially in Phuket, Samui, Pattaya and Chiang Mai, will continue to close in the coming months because there would only be a small group of people coming in after the reopening,” Chairat said.

The pandemic has devastated Thailand’s tourism industry, which provided more than US$60 billion in revenue from about 40 million foreign visitors in 2019.

A government campaign to boost travel by locals through hotel and air travel concessions has failed to make up for the slump in earnings and continued restrictions on foreign tourists may send the nation’s economy into a second straight year of contraction in 2021, according to Bank of Thailand’s Senior Director Don Nakornthab.