With a floundering Phuket Sandbox which followed the now-forgotten Special Tourist Visa, the message for the Thai government on recovering the foreign tourism industry is crystal clear. It hinges, to some extent, on abolishing emergency controls on entry to the kingdom and allowing full and unfettered passenger traffic to resume without the Certificate of Entry process and any form of state quarantine. However, it also hinges on the worldwide resumption of international passenger traffic and tourism which international experts say is already down by up to 88% in 2021 based on figures for the first 6 months.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Public Health, over the weekend, confirmed that Thailand will be maintaining its controls on entry into the country including the state quarantine system after its planned reopening to foreign tourism in mid-October. This is despite mounting evidence that the cumbersome Certificate of Entry system and the bureaucratic control of entry into the kingdom is a key barrier and reason for the 99% wipeout of foreign tourism which has seen the kingdom lose at least ฿3.6 trillion in revenue since it closed its skies to incoming foreign tourists on the 5th April 2020 under emergency powers granted to the Thai government.
There is also a growing concern for the strategically important Phuket Sandbox which has been heralded as the blueprint for reopening Thailand to foreign tourism but is currently languishing with declining arrival numbers, a new outbreak of infection on the island originating in Phuket’s fishing industry and international restrictions on the kingdom.
Commenting on growing fears for the economy this week, the Secretary-general of the newly formed New Kla Party, established by former Minister of Finance Korn Chatikavanij, who served in the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva from 2008 to 2011, Mr Atavit Suwannapakdee, has warned that the government in October will be faced with little choice but to reopen.
Thailand’s proposed reopening must mean restricted access as there is still a real public health threat
However, he criticised its approach to managing the pandemic as being too centralised.
‘We’ve reached a point where we can’t keep shutting our door. We must also face the fact that the government’s centralised approach to handling the pandemic is out of place,’ he explained. ‘The reopening plan must go ahead. If we delay it, what the country has planned will be ruined and the country as a whole will lose its credibility. Many won’t die from the disease but from being unable to make a living.’
Despite this rhetoric, there is considerable doubt about whether the government will be in a position to properly reopen and still keep the country safe.
There is also the question of whether shuttered or closed business ventures or services for foreign tourists can be relaunched or indeed if anything like prior tourist volumes can again be achieved in the medium term.
Vaccines finally coming but a 25% vaccination rate in October appears likely with 9.5% currently inoculated
This week, Dr Opas Karnkawinpong of the Department of Disease Control suggested that the kingdom will be receiving over 120 million doses of different brands of COVID-19 vaccines between now and the end of the year while on Sunday, government spokesman, Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana told reporters that 140 million doses will be secured by the government before the year is out.
He said that this would allow vaccinations to occur throughout the kingdom at a rate of 600,000 doses per month from September when 17 million doses are due to be shipped into Thailand followed by 24 million doses in October.
Assuming this rate, it would only leave the country with a 25% vaccination rate given the data to Wednesday the 25th August showing only 9.5% fully vaccinated with 28.8 million doses administered and 31.1% who had received a first dose.
Reopening of former tourist hotspots will not automatically mean a full restart of foreign tourism as the Phuket Sandbox scheme now shows clearly
What appears to be proposed is that tourist hotspots such as Chonburi province and Pattaya as well as Bangkok, Prachuap Khiri Khan and Chiang Mai which are being prioritised for vaccination, would be reopened to vaccinated tourists entering through nearby airports under the controlled Certificate of Entry process.
This has been the reasoning behind the strategic importance of the Phuket Sandbox which is itself now facing a particularly challenging situation in September.
The scheme is slowing down and will only record 12,000 visitors in August but, of greater significance, is a rising COVID-19 outbreak on the island with a daily record of 210 infections set on Saturday with over 75% of hospital beds on Phuket occupied by COVID-19 patients.
In addition, the virus on the island is widespread.
Announcing new measures in recent days to control the outbreak, the Governor of Phuket explained that the virus was entering the island through its ports which serve the island’s fishing fleet and worker camps which service the fishing industry.
Thailand is now on the UK’s red list of countries with cancellations already reported by hotels in Phuket
The listing of Thailand by UK authorities as a red list country, which came into force on Monday, has come as another blow to the scheme.
The United Kingdom is among five western countries including the United States, France, Germany and Israel which have supplied the vast majority of visitors through the scheme since July 1st.
In recent days, Marisa Sukosol Nunbhakdi, of the Thai Hotels Association has confirmed that the change announced last week has seen a flood of hotel bookings on the island being cancelled.
Ms Marisa also explained that many of the UK visitors, now holidaying in Phuket, have been left facing a bill of over ฿71,000 for a 10 days hotel stay in government-appointed state quarantine hotels in the United Kingdom whenever they fly back to their home country.
Business leaders trapped between the priority of public health and an urgent economic imperative
Sanan Angubolkul is the Chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce.
He still thinks it is too early to predict just what will happen come October but agrees that it will all depend on getting the public vaccinated.
‘It would be helpful if the reopening can be launched as planned,’ he said on Sunday.
He strongly advocated going ahead with the reopening mindful of the hundreds of billions lost this year which he estimated could run as high as ฿1 trillion.
This must surely exclude the trillions in foreign tourism earnings that have gone missing since 2019 and an estimate, from an exports boss, Mr Chaichan Chareonsuk, the Chairman of the Thai National Shippers’ Council who in August, estimated that ฿600 billion in export sales may be lost because of COVID-19 disruptions to factories.
Trillions of baht lost in the foreign tourism sector with the government still governed by external factors outside its control including a global tourism slump
From foreign tourism alone, based on 2019’s figures, Thailand has lost ฿3.6 trillion in earnings because of the effective closure of the kingdom to foreign tourism since its closed its airspace to commercial passenger traffic overnight on the 5th April 2020 under the wide-ranging emergency decree powers earlier granted to the government.
The country has never seen anything like the same level of incoming foreign tourism volume again and it is unlikely to do so under the current regulatory regime.
Of course, the government, like every government worldwide, must balance its public health policy with that of protecting the economy but has always vowed to put the former first.
As the red list status in the United Kingdom demonstrates, the kingdom is also governed by many external factors with worldwide international flights and passenger traffic already down significantly.
In the first two months of 2021 International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimated that passenger traffic was down by over 86%.
There are some signs of a rebound, in recent months, in European, African and Caribbean tourism but with countries like Australia and New Zealand now in midst of new outbreaks, long haul, international tourist destinations such as Thailand will be the last to see the market recovering, a situation that can only happen with the virus threat receding across the world through mass vaccination.
State quarantine and controlled entry regime remains
A spokesman for the Ministry of Public Health, over the weekend, made it clear that any reopening of Thailand to the world from mid-October will still include the operations of the state quarantine system and emergency restrictions to control entry into the kingdom.
Thai Examiner survey on visiting Thailand with the Certificate of Entry process in place – (Click here)
A large number of foreigners who, in the past, regularly visited the kingdom have repeatedly said that they will not return because of the cumbersome and demanding Certificate of Entry process which, despite government promotions and initiatives, has seen tourist traffic wiped out by over 99% compared to 2019 in both the latter months of 2020 and 2021 ever since the kingdom restricted entry into the country in April 2020.
‘Reopening the country will be done step-by-step by suitable measures. State quarantine is still needed. Visitors should be fully vaccinated with papers to confirm they are Covid-free,’ explained spokesman Rungrueng Kitphati on Saturday.
Last week’s talk of ‘ Living with Covid-19’
Last week, the Department of Disease Control boss, Dr Opas Karnkawinpong, indicated that a more relaxed approach to dealing with COVID-19 was being looked at by the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA). He referred to a document entitled: ‘Smart Control and Living with Covid-19’.
It followed signals from the government that the Prime Minister’s commitment to reopening Thailand by mid-October would be kept.
The news came at the same time as Moodys, the rating agency, retained its stable outlook on Thailand and its Baa1 rating. This saw the baht rally strongly by over 1% from a low point against the dollar after the Thai currency had lost over 11% in 2021.
Pandemic’s severe effect on the Thai economy
It is a similar pattern of hope followed by renewed uncertainty since early last year which has been the signature of this pandemic as it continues to have economic repercussions.
For Thailand, given that it is still a developing economy with a high level of social inequality dependent on exports and tourism to drive GDP, these have been and will continue to be, extremely pronounced.