The deepening economic effect of this crisis is leaving behind a ravaged tourism industry in hotspots such as Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket. Swathes of the foreign tourism industry, once the jewel in Thailand’s economic crown, that depended on millions of foreign tourist visitors have been left decimated. There has been some small improvement, as stranded foreigners with ties to the kingdom, are now beginning to arrive back in increasing numbers, albeit under strictly controlled conditions and in tens of thousands instead of millions. This, unfortunately, has begun to draw contentious noises from some opposition activists and online social media commentators spreading fake news.
Foreigners are arriving in Thailand in increasing numbers through a controlled process operated by Thai embassies worldwide and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bangkok. This week, the Centre for Covid Situation Administration unveiled plans to widen the scope of the programme that has been operated by the government in conjunction with efforts to also allow Thai nationals stranded abroad return home. The government, this week, has again reaffirmed its commitment to public health as its priority as it addresses raised concerns amongst a highly nervous public stoked by fake news on social media targeting this development.
There is a note of optimism among many of the stranded foreigners outside Thailand separated from families and lives here in recent weeks. Unfortunately, it is coming as foreigners entering Thailand are now increasingly becoming the target of political opponents of the government.
It follows a shocking opinion poll last Sunday which showed very strong resistance to the idea of letting any foreigners enter Thailand at this time.
Number of foreigners getting the green light to come back to Thailand is rising after bottlenecks cleared
It comes as Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and network of embassies worldwide have improved the speed of processing for spouses of Thai nationals and other stranded foreigners trapped outside the kingdom since the borders were closed between March 26th and April 7th.
The determination of these foreigners, many with homes and lives in Thailand, is inspiring with each one willing to pay out between $4,500 and $6,000 to make it home to the kingdom.
A boost to the number of flights being used for repatriation and more freedom given to embassies to make decisions has cleared up a lot of the initial confusion and bottlenecks.
Some 60,000 people have already returned to Thailand with tight screening and quarantine including foreigners in increasing numbers
Speaking this Tuesday on Thai TV, General Nattapol Nakpanich, the Deputy Chief of the Thai Army and a senior official with the Covid 19 centre who chairs a key committee, pointed out that some 60,000 people have been processed to enter Thailand already by government agencies ensuring a high standard of safety with tight screening and quarantine procedures.
Planes are taking off from capitals across the world with flight attendants in hazmat suits in a highly coordinated and disciplined manner bringing both Thai nationals and foreigners into the kingdom where they are screened, processed and placed in supervised state quarantine for 14 days.
Before a flight takes off, foreigners have to meet highly demanding criteria both to obtain a certificate of entry into Thailand and be cleared to board the aircraft.
The scheme, using combined repatriation flights and a combination of state and alternative state quarantine for foreigners, is becoming a success.
So much so, that this week the government has floated the idea that returning Thai passengers, 50,000 of whom have already returned, should begin to pay for their own quarantine and join the alternative quarantine system which is keeping some hotels open during this unprecedented economic challenge to the hospitality industry.
Government confirms broadening of scheme
In the last 24 hours, the Centre for Covid 19 Situation Administration spokesman, Dr Taweesilp Visanuyothin, has confirmed a broadening again of the categories of foreigners being allowed entry into the kingdom under this proven and controlled regime.
A notable addition is the acceptance of members of the Thailand Elite card scheme which comprises of foreigners who have paid between ฿500,000 and ฿1,000,000 for long term visa access to Thailand and other perks.
Many of these foreigners, who also have lived in Thailand, have been among those stranded since last March and will now, once the new measures are formalised by officials, be able to apply for certificates of entry.
The other groups to be allowed entry are film production crews, trade exhibition organisers, construction workers and those connected with the food export industry.
Public Health is the priority above economic benefit
All will be subject to the demanding range of requirements including medical certification and Covid 19 tests before they fly as well as health insurance and 14 days quarantine in the expanding alternative state quarantine system.
The widening of entry for foreigners was approved in principle by the Centre of Covid Situation Administration on Wednesday and is being regularised by senior officials to be put into practice.
Dr Taweesilp emphasised that public health remains the top priority for the emergency unit, chaired by the prime minister, which is leading Thailand through this crisis.
He pointed out that the government’s single most important goal was the safety and peace of mind of the public. He said this was, at all times, secondary to economic benefit.
Questions to key official linked with fake news campaign on social media targeted at foreigners
On Tuesday, while outlining the widening of criteria for foreigners entering the kingdom, the top spokesman had to deal with questions linked with an online campaign targeting the government and which is highly critical of allowing foreigners access the kingdom at this time.
Dr Taweesilp was forced to field questions concerning a popular Facebook page, with many Thai followers, which claims that the government is increasing the number of foreigners accessing the country in order to create a wave of infection that would trigger more robust action under the emergency decree.
The conspiracy theorists suggest that this is a political ploy to crackdown on recent protests and agitation by opponents of the regime.
However, on Wednesday, the government while extending the emergency decree until August 31st next, explicitly excluded restrictions on public gatherings in an amendment to the legal provision.
General Somsak Roongsita of the National Security Council said: ‘We neither impose a curfew nor ban gatherings to prove our sincere intention for disease control.’
Programme involved Thai nationals returning home to work and help develop the economy
Government spokesman, Dr Taweesilp, also made it clear that the programme involved Thai returnees travelling home to Thailand.
He said that the return of these people was important for the Thai economy but clarified that all were subject to screening and 14 days in state quarantine facilities on arrival.
Testing after two scares, no trace of the virus
The Thai government has also been anxious to highlight that large numbers of people have been tested following the scares in Rayong and Bangkok last week involving an Egyptian soldier and a diplomat’s young daughter.
It is reported that over 5,000 tests have now been completed in Rayong with results from nearly 1,400 showing no positive results.
Similarly, over 350 people at a condominium building where the Sudanese diplomat, the father of the infected girl and his family had stayed for a number of days, were also tested without a trace of the virus.
The message is clear, the government’s efforts to control the spread of the virus have been successful.
Shocking Suan Dusit poll result has disturbed officials and is bad news for the economy
However, the results of a reputable Suan Dusit opinion poll last Sunday, conducted by Rajabhat University, which showed that nearly 95% of people interviewed thought that all foreigners should be barred from entry and that 74% thought that a second wave of infection was likely, made disturbing reading.
In recent weeks, the government had expressed concern that the public had become too complacent. The poll shows how easily shaken the Thai public has become due to this crisis.
The use of such fear by some political opponents of the government to mobilise the public with anti foreigners sentiment is also worrying.
Leading economic thinkers have indicated that Thailand must be prepared to accept some risk of infection or even underlying levels of infection to properly reopen the economy.
Business closures set to rise sharply in the coming two months says an industry expert
Given the current heightened level of public feeling on the issue, this would seem unlikely to happen for now even as many business concerns, notably those dependent on foreign tourism, are predicted to close their doors in the coming few months.
Chairat Trirattanajarasporn, the President of the Tourism Council of Thailand, warned this week that the true impact of the crisis on the economy has yet to be felt.
Reports from Pattaya and Phuket are grim
It follows reports from Pattaya, one of Thailand’s former hotspots for foreign tourism, where closed beer bars and entertainment establishments have been raided this week by social services after homeless people had taken refuge and shelter in their precincts.
A report by the chief reporter, Adam Judd, in the Pattaya News website (see link below) on Tuesday detailed a visit to an abandoned beer bar premises as well as other formerly humming and bustling entertainment venues in South Pattaya.
It painted a disconcerting picture of what has become of the thriving tourism industry that first took off in the resort city in the mid-1960s and appears, so far, to have been toppled and overthrown by this pandemic.
Video clip from Phuket is heartbreaking
A video clip that went viral on Tuesday showed Phuket’s Patpong area virtually deserted even as bars are also free to open under ‘new normal’ conditions.
One regular visitor from the UK to Phuket said the scene was worse than the immediate aftermath of the 2004 tsunami and predicted that it would take the country longer to recover. He described himself as being left in tears by the footage.
Mr Chairat, this week, was just as bleak: ‘The impact of Covid-19 will become most serious in the third quarter of this year after many operators have already tried to cut costs by letting some of their employees go, but after more than a million positions were cut, the situation still hasn’t improved, as no foreign tourists are allowed into the country yet.’
Leading hotel in Bangkok on the brink of closure
Then there is news that one of Bangkok’s leading hotels and a well-known venue to many foreigners over the decades, is also facing the threat of imminent closure.
Staff have been called in over the past few weeks and, one by one, laid off.
These are people who have worked at the establishment for most of their working lives and who had already been laid off during the shutdown and returned on part-time hours.
The hotel, one of the largest and well known in the capital, does not qualify for the government’s lucrative alternative quarantine scheme because it uses plush carpets in its high-class rooms.
The absence of carpet is an essential requirement if hotels are to participate in the alternative quarantine scheme which works in partnership with health officials at the Ministry of Public Health.