There is already growing opposition in some medical circles to the intervention of the prime minister on Monday night’s TV address to the nation where he made a speech that decisively cut across more complicated and confusing reopening plans to announce a blanket approach to allowing entry without quarantine to vaccinated visitors from an initial list of 10 countries which will be widened in December. The PM also promised the return of booze sales and possibly the entertainment industry which are essential to kickstarting the more lucrative foreign tourism industry that existed before the complete closure of the industry in April 2020 which has left the sector moribund since, despite initiatives such as the Phuket Sandbox.

An announcement by the Thai Prime Minister on Monday night that Thailand will be reopening without quarantine to a safe list of up to 10 countries looks like it may be the start of the end of the pandemic crisis and restricted access to the country. On Tuesday, it buoyed tourism-related stocks listed on the Bangkok stock exchange. However, it is coming as the country is still suffering large daily infection rates with a developing outbreak in its southern provinces. The story of the COVID-19 crisis so far has also shown that the powerful Ministry of Public Health and the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) can stymie the momentum generated by such announcements and indeed reverse them. In any event, even if the new dispensation goes ahead and is extended to more countries as promised, by December, Thailand retains the burdensome Certificate of Entry process which Thai Examiner polls have shown would rule out 85% of regular and potential visitors to the kingdom.

The Prime Minister’s speech on Monday night marked an intervention and significant change of tack to what had been proposed by government agencies and indeed ministers in the days running up to the televised address. If the plan goes ahead, it will certainly mark the beginning of the end of this devastating virus crisis for Thailand’s tourism industry that has left millions without income and up to 70% of the country with reduced earnings. However, it is also already drawing pushback from the public health sector as the virus continues to pose a threat across the country.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha took to TV on Monday night to announce a broader reopening of the kingdom from November for up to 10 ‘low risk’ countries without quarantine and without limiting the access of incoming passengers to seperate areas of the country.

The announcement was greeted enthusiastically by the Thai stock Exchange, the SET, on Tuesday where tourism-related stocks rose in anticipation of a boost in inward foreign arrivals between now and the end of March 2022 or the high season for the industry.

However, observers are still wary of what is being proposed while medical experts have already piled in to voice their concerns, for which, there is a valid scientific basis.

Response to the growing prospect of high season washout with millions still left unemployed

The move appears to be a response to the growing prospect of another high season disaster for the foreign tourism industry as potential holidaymakers have been increasingly turned off by the high handed, demanding entry requirements for those seeking access to the country, the high cost of Covid PCR tests and the confusion caused by different, overlapping and complicated schemes based on the initial Phuket Sandbox initiative, launched on July 1st, which has enjoyed just modest success.

However, on Tuesday, the prime minister seemed sincere in his comments about the situation warning the country’s millions of unemployed hotel workers and small-time entrepreneurs could not endure the suffering of another failed tourism season.

‘It has been one of the most painful experiences in my life, too, to make decisions that balance the saving of lives with the saving of livelihoods, a choice that is not always clearly separate, and where we may save lives, but commit those lives to the unbearable pain of trying to survive with little or no income; or where we may save livelihoods but commit one’s family, friends and neighbours to loss of life and the loss of their breadwinner,’ Prime Minister Prayut said in rhetoric which contrasted sharply with the official pronouncements on regulations and restrictions applying to tourists considering a visit to the kingdom which in 2019 welcomed nearly 40 million visitors to its sunny shores.

Prime Minister: Thailand must learn to live with the COVID-19 virus as an endemic illness like others

‘The time has come for us to ready ourselves to face the coronavirus and live with it as with other endemic infections and diseases, much as we have learnt to live with other diseases with treatments and vaccinations,’ General Prayut declared. ‘Today, I would like to announce the first small but important step in decisively beginning the process of trying to restore our livelihoods.’

The statement echoed those of top Thai virologist Dr Yong Poovorawan in recent weeks.

Goal is to live with COVID as an endemic disease as Dr Yong urges everyone to get their vaccine shots

It is understood that Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, Singapore and China are among the 10 countries to which the new dispensation has been granted, from the 1st November, although it is proposed that more countries will be added to the list from December 1st.

Arduous Certificate of Entry requirement remains with a raft of conditions to be met before travelling

Under the new entry regulations, however, there remains the requirement of obtaining a Certificate of Entry to enter Thailand which comes with a host of demanding conditions and the need for extensive documentation including evidence of $100,000 in medical insurance, a negative COVID-19 PCR test within 72 hours of travel as well as a valid visa.

This has been identified by polls and surveys as a key impediment to travellers thinking of entering Thailand although, only last week, the Chairman of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Yuthasak Supasorn, spoke of a move to relax the system operated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or scrapping it altogether once a system being developed by the Ministry of Public Health to track travellers with international vaccine passports is ready to go into operation.

Ministers and leading agencies talked of weaning the country off mass tourism in recent weeks towards attracting more ‘high quality’ visitors

There has also been concern raised by pronouncements from government ministers in recent weeks suggesting that Thailand was no longer interested in attracting mass tourism to the kingdom.

In recent days, just before the PM’s announcement, the boss of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) had raised the white flag for 2021 and suggested that the kingdom will only record 100,000 foreign tourists this year which is, in fact, lower than most financial analysts in Bangkok who are projecting 150,000 for the year.

Mr Yuthasak was speaking last week at an annual seminar for business and industry leaders organised by the Bangkok Post which this year was entitled ‘Resilient Thailand: Ways to Bounce Back’.

Plan for new more ‘eco-friendly’ tourism pushed last week at a business seminar in Bangkok by Deputy Prime Minister Supattanapong Punmeechaow

In his address to the same forum of business and political leaders, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Energy Supattanapong Punmeechaow went further and doubled down on the government’s emerging policy of ditching Thailand’s past emphasis on mass-market tourism in favour of a more green and eco-friendly model that was less dependent on volume.

New ‘high quality’ economy again touted by the government’s economics czar amid storm clouds

‘Instead of relying on 40 million tourists to generate 2 trillion baht in revenue, we will turn to focus on quality tourists who can spend more,’ the minister, who has special responsibility for oversight of the kingdom’s economic policy, told the gathering. ‘This will be good for the country’s environment and natural resources.’

Thailand aims for 20 million tourists in 2022 with 26 million in 2023 which would be 65% of past levels

In the meantime, Mr Yuthasak told his audience that next year should see a return of something like normality for the foreign tourism industry when he predicted that 2022 could see up to 20 million foreign visitors returning to the kingdom.

He said this would be followed by a 30% rise in this base in 2023 projecting a figure of 26 million visitors in 2023 or approximately 65% of the figure seen in 2019.

This was because Thailand will be seeking to attract higher spending and ‘quality’ foreign tourists to the country in the future, suggested Mr Yuthasak.

He said Thailand was aiming for a rise in per capita income from foreign tourists going forward raising the figure from ฿49,700 before the pandemic to ฿82,576.

Average spend from Phuket Sandbox tourists from July to October was flat or lower than that seen in average visitor spend from the record year in 2019

However, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand Director on Phuket, Nanthasiri Ronnasiri, earlier this month, the Phuket Sandbox, touted as a ‘blueprint’ for the new normal in Thailand’s tourism efforts, generated 42,000 visitors from July 1st last to October 5th.

These travellers, according to the TAT official, generated a revenue stream of ฿2 billion for the Thai economy or the equivalent of ฿47,619 per person.

This was despite higher hotel and accommodation costs as well as medical charges including testing and doctors fees. Figures released by local authorities on Phuket showed that this accounted for 14.01% of the average spend for each visitor on the scheme in its opening months.

Speaking to the seminar, Mr Yuthasak blamed international travel restrictions for the disaster that had befallen the foreign tourism industry in Thailand and meant that 64% of workers in the hotel industry have lost their jobs leaving millions in poverty.

Domestic tourism has also dipped in 2021

He did accept, however, that domestic tourism, which had also dipped substantially this year with lockdown measures, restrictions and curfews still in place, could not replace the kingdom’s vast foreign tourism sector.

‘In the past, we saw two-thirds of revenue derived from international revenue. This is the main reason the government is accelerating the reopening scheme, as domestic tourism alone can’t save the industry,’ he said.

He announced that the new schemes being developed throughout the country will be called ‘blue zones’ with each area having its own conditions and regulations.

The PM’s Monday night announcement, at least for the initial 10 countries involved which is set to expand, has now effectively made such schemes superfluous for most incoming foreign tourists.

Prospects of confusion caused by various competing local sandbox schemes may now be bypassed

The confusion caused by the schemes had already been identified by foreign tourists within the pioneering Phuket Sandbox as a major hurdle for incoming visitors seeking to explore the country as such areas each has a different set of restrictions and different testing rules for COVID-19 passengers.

Mr Yuthasak also accepted that the slow revival of Thailand’s foreign tourism sector is a key contributory factor towards what looks like a K shaped economic recovery for the kingdom which has left the less well off and the vulnerable bearing the brunt of the economic devastation in its wake.

‘Most economic forecasts expect Thailand will see a K-shaped recovery, meaning economic inequality will widen,’ he admitted. ‘To precipitate a V-shaped recovery, we need to reform the industry in certain ways.’

The comments came after the Tourism Council of Thailand released data, from a survey conducted nationwide last month, showing that 70% of Thai households had lost 40% of their income since early 2020.

Outcome of discussions with the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) and the Ministry of Public Health will be the acid test for this initiative

The announcement by the prime minister, on Monday, indicated that discussions will now take place between the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration and the Ministry of Public Health to implement the new initiative.

In the past, this is where issues have arisen although General Prayut made it clear that he envisages foreign tourists arriving from safe countries listed by the government as having free access to the country ‘the same as Thais’ once one negative COVID-19 PCR test is conducted after their arrival.

The government leader, who is in the midst of a political struggle for his position and facing the prospect of a General Election next year, described his announcement as a ‘first small but important step in decisively beginning the process of trying to restore our livelihoods.’

Thailand is very much dependent on its foreign tourism industry which is a lynchpin and key engine of economic growth which has widespread impact

This is linked with the fact that up to 20% of Thailand’s GDP is linked to its huge foreign tourism industry reported as being the second biggest in the world after Spain.

The strategic importance of the industry has been proven with the drastic shutdown of the sector which has shown that it, indirectly, impacts most areas of the economy.

It has also exposed the lack of progress the country has made in the last two decades in moving itself from a newly industrialised and developing economy into a high-income one.

Despite this, the country remains an attractive place for investors with the kingdom ranking 21st in the world according to the World Bank in respect of the ease in doing business while still being 18th in the world for manufacturing output and the world’s 26th biggest economy before this pandemic hit.

Country has floundered since the US-China trade war in 2019 followed by a record contraction in 2020

The country’s economy has floundered since 2019 and the surprisingly heavy impact caused by the US Chinese trade war while suffering a 7% contraction of its economy from 2020 to mid-2021 from the pandemic.

The kingdom’s economic base is declining as it loses ground to Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia with younger populations.

Significantly, the loss of foreign tourism from the end of 2020 impacted Thailand’s current account balance which fell into negative territory while poverty rates and inequality have risen sharply.

Both the Bank of Thailand and the Finance Ministry have been emphasising the need to relaunch the kingdom’s foreign tourism industry since the beginning of 2021 and its strategic economic importance.

Alcohol may be back on the menu together with the bright lights of the Thai entertainment industry

The prime minister went further on Monday night and announced that alcohol will again be served in restaurants across the kingdom while also suggesting that the entertainment industry may be reopened.

‘By December 1, we will also consider allowing the consumption of alcoholic beverages in restaurants as well as the operation of entertainment venues,’ he promised.

Such a move would be extremely significant. 

Thailand’s bright lights and renowned nightlife industry is a key part of the country’s attraction to foreign tourists and also generates income that is quickly and effectively distributed to the local population and small business interests.

This may also prove controversial in a country that is currently experiencing approximately 10,000 cases a day and where, as yet, only 33% of the population is fully vaccinated.

Note of encouragement and hope from the PM was badly needed and well-received in the kingdom

On Monday night, the prime minister tried to give the country’s population some badly needed encouragement and hope when he praised efforts to drive forward the kingdom’s vaccination campaign which has seen a dramatic improvement from a low point in July when vaccine doses ran out.

The progress made during the last three months was highlighted by General Prayut when he pointed to a rise in daily vaccination rates from 80,000 per day in May to 700,000 a day currently and sometimes up to 1 million doses being administered in a 24 hour period.

‘After we adopted the 120-day goal, extraordinary efforts were made to increase our supply of vaccines,’ the PM went on to point to a steady rise in vaccine flows into Thailand rising from 4 million doses in May to 20 million in September with a projected target of over 170 million by the end of 2021, well ahead of targets set.

The prime minister spoke in a heartfelt manner to the public in a fashion that is becoming a trademark style for him at propitious moments in his tenure.

He said that what Thai people had endured since the end of March 2020 represented one of the greatest challenges the population had faced in peacetime.

COVID-19 is still a lurking threat across the country with a recent outbreak in southern Thai provinces

The new move to try to save the foreign tourism industry and any prospect of growth for an economy that has weathered a severe contraction since April 2020, will not come without risks or resistance from the country’s hawkish public health service to reimpose restrictions or conditionality.

This is especially so as there are signs of an outbreak of COVID-19 in the country’s southern provinces while the northeastern province of Khon Kaen has just announced a new, third field hospital for rising infection numbers.

However, a campaign of booster shots and the use of better vaccines on Phuket has seen the holiday island’s infection rate reduced over the last few weeks to just over 100 per day as the island proceeded, at the same time, with a relaxation of restrictions including the lifting of an alcohol ban.

General Prayut acknowledged this on Monday.

‘We will have to track the situation very carefully and see how to contain and live with that situation because I do not think that the many millions who depend on the income generated by the travel, leisure and entertainment sector can possibly afford the devastating blow of a second lost New Year holiday period,’ he declared.

Top doc wants a halt to all foreigners entering Thailand again warning of a 2nd virus breakout due to the influx

It comes as Dr Thira Woratanarat of Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Medicine, a respected figure who has consistently argued against opening up the country prematurely to foreign travellers, has urged caution and warned the move envisaged by the government could at least see infection rates double in short order as a consequence.

Tourism industry moving to centre stage in opening salvos before an anticipated 2022 General Election

The rising prominence of the closed foreign tourism industry in the political sphere could be seen this week when the country’s second favourite for the job of Prime Minister in opinion polls, former cabinet minister, Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan, who now leads her own movement, the Thai Srang Thai Party, visited Phuket to meet over 100 small hotel owners.

It is widely predicted that Thailand will see a General Election in 2022.

On the island, Khunying Sudarat, a pragmatic politician who was the nominee of the Pheu Thai Party in the 2019 General Election, called for a relaxation of environmental building and control laws which hotel owners say are discriminating against small operators.

It is reported that under a special dispensation for small hotel owners which expired in August this year, up to 50,000 of the country’s 70,000 hotel operators have been barred from opening as only 20,000 are properly licenced.

Khunying Sudarat heard this included 80 hotels currently registered under the controversial Safety and Health Administration (SHA) Plus system in Phuket which also excludes guest houses and other accommodation providers from participating in the Phuket Sandbox scheme.

Calls for a new hotel law with different levels to create more competition within the hotel industry

After a meeting with the hotel owners, Khunying Sudarat called for the law to be relaxed to allow the hotels to operate in the short term while suggesting that a new law be created allowing for up to three different classes of hotels or accomodation standards to encourage more competition and choice within the industry.

This would maximise the potential of the tourism industry to provide employment to people and generate wealth for the economy.

The first step towards this would be to extend a 2019 order, No. 6/2019, made by the former junta beyond August this year when it expired.

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Refloat of foreign tourism in the 2nd half of 2021 with vaccines pushed by minister and industry for the sector

Fact – only 6,556 visitors arrived in Thailand last month compared to 3.95 million in December 2019

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Strict entry criteria to remain as officials await clarity on the medical status of vaccinated people

Challenge of the virus and closure to tourism leads to major long term changes in the Thai economy

Finance Minister says economy must pivot away from tourism with a switch to S-Curve industries

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Thai economy is still in reverse despite rising confidence and a virus threatening a 3rd wave

Reopening of Phuket still not officially approved although it is the ideal test for a broader move

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Economy to rebound as the year progresses driven by exports and a return of mass foreign tourism

Door closing on quick foreign tourism return as economic recovery is delayed to the end of 2022

Phuket’s plan to self vaccinate on hold as Interior Ministry orders private sector out of vaccine deals

Refloat of foreign tourism in the 2nd half of 2021 with vaccines pushed by minister and industry for the sector

Fact – only 6,556 visitors arrived in Thailand last month compared to 3.95 million in December 2019

Desperate foreign tourism business concerns are clinging to straws as they try to survive the crisis

Finance Minister says economy must pivot away from tourism with a switch to S-Curve industries

Steady as she goes economy driven by exports and public investment with a 3.3% growth rate forecast for 2021