National governments worldwide are increasingly restricting foreign travel on both inbound and outward flights, to control the virus as they administer vaccination programmes. These bans, such as the recent one in the UK, may even impact the small number of foreign tourists still arriving in the kingdom. Thailand’s vaccination campaign, although it has begun, is only really expected to gain momentum from June as the government plans to inoculate 54% of adults by the end of the year with 63 million doses, mostly of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Even as Dr Yong Poovorawan of Chulalongkorn University says this is not enough, there are also question marks over what it will take and when will it be possible to allow foreign tourists unhindered access again without quarantine.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand Governor has said the kingdom may only see 15,000 foreign tourists in the third quarter of 2021. It comes as the prospect of reopening Thailand to unbridled foreign tourism is still receding as, worldwide, countries have begun to place swingeing travel restrictions on both inbound and outbound travel as they battle to roll out national vaccination programmes. While Thailand has begun to administer vaccines, it is expected to be June before vaccines are administered in large volumes with the Siam Bioscience facility in Pathum Thani expected to deliver 10 million AstraZeneca jabs per month. It comes as many western countries have now placed bans or restrictions on outbound travel as the Covid-19 virus emergency bites even deeper in the short term.

Amid chaos over national travel bans worldwide in both directions including one imposed on Monday 8th March by UK Home Secretary Priti Patel (inset), which may impact even the minute numbers of existing tourists from the UK, the Governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand Yuthasak Supasorn (right) has again signalled his organisation’s focus away from foreign tourism and on to domestic tourism. He also suggested Thailand may see foreign tourist arrivals as low as 15,000 visitors from the third quarter of the year but insists that 6.5 million people will arrive in Thailand in 2021 bringing with them ฿347 billion.

There are further indications that efforts to open Thailand’s borders to foreign tourism are losing traction as the Governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Yuthasak Supasorn, revealed his agency has again switched its priority away from foreign tourism towards domestic tourism for 2021.

Mr Yuthasak was speaking with Thai publication Thansettakij Thai and outlined plans for a domestic tourism drive commencing in April which aims to see Thailand’s population of 70 million people take to tourist highways and bye-ways no less than 2.3 times each between now and the end of the year, generating 160 million tourist visits and an income of just over ฿870 billion.

Incoming visitors may be as few as 15,000 for the third quarter of 2021 says Tourism Authority boss

By contrast, the tourism boss suggested the kingdom may only welcome as little as 15,000 foreign tourists in the third quarter of the year between July and October which is less than the record low number seen in January this year when official figures show that 7,694 visitors entered Thailand, a drop of 99.8% on the previous year.

Of those who arrived in January, 54% were from Europe with 14% coming from the Americas including the United States and Canada. 

Still predicting 6.5 million visitors for the year

However, the head of the tourism agency, responsible for marketing Thailand as a tourist destination abroad, still says the Tourism Authority of Thailand expects to see 6.5 million foreign tourists in 2021 presumably in the last quarter of the year, generating ฿347 billion in revenue.

This is ahead of projections from the Finance Ministry which is becoming increasingly concerned about achieving 5 million tourists in 2021 which is its current projection.

Minister urged to borrow as fears grow for a quick foreign tourism revival

Mr Yuthasak describes this prospect as a V-shaped recovery from the crisis which has seen the kingdom effectively closed to foreign tourists since April 2020.

Western countries increasingly imposing travel restrictions both ways to combat the virus

At present, the countries which are the main western markets for foreign tourists to Thailand, are not making it any easier. 

The United Kingdom has just announced stringent conditions making it illegal to leave the country on holidays and warning air travellers if they arrive at an airport with a golf bag or kit, they will be refused permission to board and sent straight back home.

The new regulations, announced by the Home Secretary Priti Patel last week, came into effect on Monday 8th March and give sweeping powers to airport police to make the final decision on who can board a plane and who cannot.

UK ban may impact existing travellers to Thailand

It is not clear if this measure in the UK will adversely impact the small number of UK visitors and tourists who have been entering Thailand under Certificates of Entry.

The Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs continues to issue the clearance certs for travel to Thailand at this time.

One source at London’s Heathrow Airport suggested that official documentation like this should be enough to see the travellers to the kingdom waved through as a matter of diplomatic courtesy but in theory, if the purpose of the visit to Thailand is a holiday, then it can be cancelled and the flyers told to return home.

In January, 652 travellers flew from the UK into Thailand.

Australia still has a blanket ban on outbound travel

The situation is similar for Australian visitors to Thailand where a blanket ban still exists on all outward travel except on a justified basis.

In January, only 201 Australians arrived in Thailand on certificates of entry and using the alternative quarantine programme. That was 2.6% of the total and compared to just over 62,000 the year previously.

Easier for US travellers but new return requirements for all flyers with a 72 hour Covid-19 test

The situation for Americans flying out of the country is easier but there is a requirement for all flyers coming back into the United States to have negative Covid-19 test results within 72 hours of the flight and guidance on mandatory quarantine measures that should be taken when arriving back home.

In Europe, there are also varied outbound travel restrictions and criteria that have to be met by travellers from individual countries. 

Chaos and confusion in the European Union

However, across the European Union, some countries such as France have also placed a ban on outbound travel beyond Europe, including Thailand, which came into effect in February while others have placed severe restrictions on all outgoing and incoming flights. These include Germany, Belgium, Hungary, Finland, Denmark and Sweden.

The situation has provoked a reprimand from the European Commission in Brussels but for travellers on the ground, the situation is confusing and exasperating. 

It is certainly far more difficult than last year as national governments react out of fear of variants of the Covid-19 virus as the European Union has been slow to roll out its vaccination campaign which has undermined confidence further.

Vaccination drive holds out hope to Australians looking forward to a foreign holiday in Thailand

Meanwhile, in Australia, it is hoped that once the country’s vaccination campaign is effective, the country can reopen.

This may hold out hope to Aussies who may wish to return to Thailand later in the year for sunshine and fun if the kingdom’s borders also reopen.

National expert Dr Tony Blakely of the University of Melbourne said, this week, this may be possible once 40% of the population is inoculated.

However, the expert still warned that some quarantine measures may be required for visitors from the United Kingdom and the United States.

Public health officials have an onerous responsibility

This gives us some idea of where Thailand’s public health professionals might be at this time.

These officials bear an onerous responsibility as they weigh the medical threat to the public against the economic calamity being inflicted.

This comes as the country has not yet even begun the main segment of its vaccination programme which is due to commence in June.

Counting on AstraZeneca vaccines produced here

At that point, it is understood that the Siam Bioscience plant in Pathum Thani will be able to supply the kingdom with 10 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses per month.

Currently, 2 million Chinese Sinovac doses are being used to vaccinate those most at risk in hotspots and medical professionals.

The plan is to administer 63 million doses by the end of 2021 meaning over 54% of the adult population will have been vaccinated.

Not enough says top Chulalongkorn University expert

However, Dr Yong Poovorawan of the Faculty of Medicine at Chulalongkorn University, one of the country’s top virology experts, said last week the figure should be 100 million doses to be certain of herd immunity.

‘The ministry has planned vaccine deals since April 2020, giving priority to quality and safety. The Thai government has secured 63 million doses. 61 million from AstraZeneca and 2 million from Sinovac, to build natural immunity, control the epidemic, and boost the economy,’ said Ministry of Public Health permanent secretary, Kiattiphum Wongrajit, this week.

The man in the hot seat in Thailand is the Department of Disease Control boss, Dr Opas Karnkawinpong. 

Outlook is not clear but the goal is easy to understand

‘The government, led by the DDC, has planned the vaccinations since 2020, with three key goals: reduce morbidity and mortality with clinically-proven AstraZeneca and Sinovac vaccines, protect the country’s healthcare system especially medical personnel, and help the country return to normal conditions with economic and tourism recovery. The ultimate aim is to cover as many Thai people as possible to prevent further outbreaks,’ explained Dr Opas this week.

The outlook is not clear but the goal of medical health professionals is relatively easy to understand.

Across the world, in Australia, the United States, United Kingdom, Europe and Thailand there are vaccination programmes that need to be undertaken and shown to be successful before the increasingly burdensome travel restrictions seen so far in 2021 are lifted.

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