Health workers check the documents of international travellers arriving at Phuket International Airport. Picture: ANDRE MALERBA/BLOOMBERG
Health workers check the documents of international travellers arriving at Phuket International Airport. Picture: ANDRE MALERBA/BLOOMBERG

Thailand is ending quarantine for vaccinated visitors from more than 60 countries, the biggest reopening gamble in Asia and one that could mark a turning point for the revival of mass tourism during the pandemic.

Starting on Monday, fully vaccinated travellers flying in from the US, China, Singapore, Japan, India and most of Europe will be able to freely tour Thailand’s sandy beaches, temples and tropical islands after testing negative for Covid-19 on arrival. Inoculated visitors from countries not on the list can travel to Bangkok and 16 other regions, but they will be confined to their initial destination for the first seven days before being allowed to travel elsewhere.

It’s the biggest step Thailand has taken to welcome back a slice of the nearly 40-million visitors it hosted the year before the pandemic, and is billed as a “fight to win foreign tourists” as countries from Australia to the UK also loosen Covid-19 curbs. A successful Thai experiment could help salvage its battered economy and serve as a model for countries wary of a virus resurgence from reopenings.

“We’re not expecting the rooms to be full overnight, but it’s a great first step,” said John Blanco, GM at luxury hotel Capella Bangkok. “All countries are taking the same posture, that is, we need to learn to live with Covid. It’s a general theme around the world.”

Hotels in places such as the US, Mexico and Turkey have reported higher occupancy after easing travel restrictions, but the rush may not be as strong for Thailand given how low it sits on the Covid-19 resilience ranking, especially for tourists who still have to quarantine on returning home.   

While Thailand fumbled in its previous reopening attempts due to a virus flare up and tardy progress in its vaccinations, it has had some success with the so-called Phuket Sandbox experiment that allowed vaccinated visitors to travel to other parts of the country after a limited stay on the resort island. Almost 60,000 tourists have visited the country since the plan started in July.

The travel industry is already preparing for the Thai reopening. International carriers have scheduled more flights to the Southeast Asian nation, while hotels and beach resorts are offering bargains and the island of Phuket is hosting a New Year’s Eve party featuring Italian opera tenor Andrea Bocelli. 

Authorities in Bangkok lifted a six-month-old ban on the sale of alcohol in restaurants from Monday and eased several other Covid-19 containment measures to draw tourists to the capital city, the gateway to Thailand.   

Thailand’s economy shrank 6.1% in 2020, the worst performance since the Asian financial crisis in 1998. 

There are fears, however, that the wider reopening could worsen the Covid-19 outbreak, with Thailand already reporting about 8,000 new infections a day. More than 90% of the participants in a recent survey had some concerns about the move. 

Still, for Thailand’s pandemic-hit economy and millions of people who depend on tourism for a living, it’s never too early for the return of tourists. 

Bloomberg News. For more articles like this please visit Bloomberg.com.

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