Thailand has been performing admirably in its fight against Covid-19 to date. August 12th saw the 79th day without any reported instance of community transmission of the virus, and the only recorded cases are of Thais returning to the Kingdom who are now securely in state quarantine. The strategy of closing the borders and allowing only Thai citizens and foreigners who meet strict criteria to enter the country has worked. Thai Embassies overseas have tightly controlled inbound travel, and the mandatory quarantine system has done its job in keeping the virus out.
That was the good news. The problem is that closing the borders in a country which has a substantial international tourism sector can have a highly detrimental impact upon the economy. It is no surprise, therefore, that those involved in tourism, aviation, and hospitality are desperately hoping that a way can be found for the border controls to be relaxed in order that their businesses might survive.
I suspect, however, that those borders may remain shut for much longer than those people would like. The evidence suggests that the Thai authorities have decided that the damage from a future Covid outbreak and resulting lockdown would be greater than the damage from maintaining the status quo. If this is indeed the case, the idea of travel bubbles, or limited short term tourism from carefully selected countries under very tight restrictions can be abandoned right now. Thailand is not going to bring in sufficient leisure travelers to make a positive economic impact without throwing away its successful Covid record. There is, however, a clear solution.
Thailand has demonstrated that its current system of restricted entry, testing, and quarantine is an effective means of preventing the entry of the virus. The current system works – up to a point. The problem with the current approach is that while the media happily report the categories of people who are allowed to enter – Thai citizens, and foreigners with work permits – the reality is rather different. I have been in contact with three different Thai embassies overseas since April, trying to make arrangements for Thai family members and foreign work colleagues to enter the country. Some of these people finally made it successfully on August 10th, while others are still waiting. These are people who meet the criteria and submitted the necessary paperwork a long time ago, but with only a handful of repatriation flights – the only way in – the waiting lists and times are long. It is a bureaucratic mess, albeit one which is keeping Thailand safe.
It is clear, however, that all the elements are in place for a successful strategy to be implemented. There are planes sitting on the tarmac doing nothing. There are empty hotels all over Thailand. There are significant numbers of foreigners waiting to bring themselves and their money into the country – not for a ten-day vacation, but because they have families, or work, or like to spend the winter in the sun. Many of these people would be willing to take their tests and do their quarantine, at no cost to Thailand. They can be safely allowed in through an expansion of the current system.
The idea that foreign visitors will want to jump through bureaucratic hoops to have a tightly restricted short Thai vacation experience is absurd. Asking people to obtain visas has been shown to reduce the numbers of potential visitors wherever such rules are implemented. Adding even more obstacles will simply see tourists wait for better times. But those who have stronger ties and want to be here for longer stays will not be so easily deterred. These are the people who can be encouraged to visit, who might help keep the hospitality sector afloat, and Thailand has already demonstrated a working system that can allow them in safely. All that is needed now is the wit to expand the current approach to meet the demand.
There is a further point to be made here. Thailand has in recent years taken a contradictory approach to tourism and immigration, with the Tourism Authority of Thailand doing its utmost to attract visitors, and the Immigration Bureau doing its utmost to prevent this. For example, the TAT recently suggested expensive package tours of around one week’s duration where foreigners would visit under safe and secure conditions, in the forlorn hope of bringing in a few short-term foreign visitors. Meanwhile, the immigration authorities announced that all foreigners who do not have the correct long-term visas must leave by September 26th. The country wants tourists. However, it already has some tourists – ones without Covid. But no, it wants different tourists. The opportunity even exists to sell visa extensions to anyone who wishes to stay longer, but sadly this potential source of income is being overlooked.
It is evident that the days of large numbers of visitors coming to Thailand for one or two-week stays will not be returning for some time. Not until it’s convenient and the experience is not watered down by the current restrictions. But 20 million visitors coming for one week might be replaced by one million visitors coming for 20 weeks. Quite a few visitors have been here since the borders shut, so that’s almost 20 weeks already. If Thailand wants to get its recovery on track, we need increased flight frequencies to bring in Thais and eligible foreigners. We need more quarantine hotels. We need to welcome all those foreigners who are willing to do their quarantine because they want to stay a couple of months or more. And we need immigration to push for measures to support foreign visitors staying longer, because without foreigners, immigration officers will soon have the same career prospects as tour guides.
Written by: Graeme Kay