Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul is annoyed at reports of bars serving foreigners being open in central Bangkok as the door is shut on reopening the entertainment and nightlife industry until at least January 16th 2022. On Friday, Dr Taweesilp Visanuyothin of the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), however, stressed that officials including the PM are aware of the hardship the decision is causing operators and workers allied with the sector. He said, depending on current preparation, the question of reopening earlier could be revisited.
Thailand’s public health leadership, on Friday, approved changes to the entry system to Thailand for foreign tourists from December 1st, chief among them the replacement of PCR tests for arriving passengers with less expensive antigen testing. It has also been revealed that an approach has been made to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to review the current list of 63 countries eligible for the more convenient ‘Test and Go’ entry regime in the light of rising COVID-19 cases in Europe and fears of the new Omicron virus strain which has been detected in Southern Africa, Belgium and Israel. The Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), on Friday, also shut the door on an earlier reopening for now of the nightlife and entertainment industry until January 16th 2022. At the same time, the numbers entering are still seen by operators in the tourism sector as weak prompting the Association of Thai Travel Agents in recent days to request the government to defer the foreign tourist levy due to be introduced from January 1st 2022.
The Association of Thai Travel Agents has called on the government to yet again defer a scheme to levy a charge on all incoming tourists to provide automatic insurance cover and help to fund the development of tourism infrastructure throughout the country.
The calls are being made in the light of middling numbers of arriving tourists under the government’s November 1st wider reopening scheme which is now recording arrivals of approximately 3,000 to 4,000 international visitors a day.
It is suggested that Thailand may only see 300,000 to 400,000 foreign tourists for the year, a 99% wipeout from 2019 levels.
Confidence in the tourism sector remains weak with middling numbers for arrivals, 1% of 2019 levels
The President of the Association of Thai Travel Agents, in making the request, described confidence in the industry as weak when compared to other significant tourism markets that have reopened to visitors, particularly in Europe.
Mr Sisdivachr Cheewarattanaporn also pointed out that the COVID-19 virus is on the rise in Europe which has become a key market for Thailand at this time with fears that prospects for the country’s High Season are already dimming.
He said many countries competing with the kingdom for tourists were now making it more convenient for visitors to access for their vacations.
Changes making the entry regime easier and less expensive for incoming passengers just announced
Thailand, on Friday, announced moves to reduce the cost of testing for the virus by only requiring Antigen tests.
Following an order from Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha earlier in the week, there is ongoing work to address problems with the Thailand Pass entry system and complicated requirements linked with the Safety and Health Administration (SHA) Plus certification system applicable to services being used by incoming tourists.
Concerns raised about the transparency surrounding the proposed tourism levy on incoming foreign visitors by leading industry body officers
The Secretary-general of the Association of Thai Travel Agents, Mr Adith Chairattananon, has also queried transparency surrounding the proposed levy on foreign tourists.
Tourist Levy transformed with a shift of emphasis from its previous purpose of providing badly needed automatic medical insurance cover for visitors
At the end of September, the Centre for Economic Situation Administration (CESA) proposed a ฿500 levy to be implemented at the start of the year to launch the scheme.
This followed an earlier proposal from the Minister of Tourism and Sports, Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn, of a ฿300 fee having suggested a levy of between ฿100 and ฿200 at the beginning of 2021.
The total estimated cost to provide automatic health insurance and emergency medical cover for foreign tourists has been estimated at ฿34 per visitor.
This followed work on the scheme from 2019 carried out by Naresuan University and the Office of the Insurance Commission.
However, in the most recent announcement concerning the levy, there has been no mention of the health insurance aspect of the proposal which, according to reports, is to be now applied primarily now to a tourism project development fund.
Defer levy in the light of weak demand and uncertainty hanging over foreign tourism says boss
This week, Mr Adith said the levy should be deferred until the kingdom’s foreign tourism markets had stabilised and should only be introduced when the current uncertainty has been lifted.
He also called for representatives of private-sector interests to sit on the committee which is proposed to oversee the fund.
The tourism chief said many of his association’s members have seen no benefit from the November 1st reopening up to this point.
His position has been echoed by tourism-related businesses in Phang-nga province this week who said they also had seen no tangible benefit.
The industry leader mentioned the closed Safety and Health Administration (SHA) Plus system which is excluding many operators from their normal business and trade as a key problem that needs to be addressed.
Members of the travel agency industry have found themselves locked out of the current trade
This has meant that certified Safety and Health Administration (SHA) Plus operators are, in many cases, now directing and organising certified shuttle transport for visitors arriving from ‘Test and Go’ countries which make up 71% of the market under the controlled regime for visitors until they have received a first negative PCR test.
This will now change in December to speedier and cheaper antigen tests.
It comes as the Ministry of Tourism and Sports has also called for more businesses to be included in the Thailand Pass scheme to provide incoming foreign tourists with more choice and also help eliminate difficulties that the closed system is creating.
The Secretary-general of the Association of Thai Travel Agents said this week that his body includes experienced foreign tourism operators with extensive customer bases and contacts of their own.
He emphasised that these could be deployed to boost the current foreign tourism drive and to make travelling to Thailand easier for incoming visitors.
Public health minister signals annoyance at reports of bars open in Bangkok and fully supports the continued ban on nightlife at this time
On Friday, the Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul signalled his approval for the use of antigen testing for foreign tourists.
This came as the National Communicable Diseases Committee (NCDC) confirmed its approval of new entry plans.
The new entry arrangements will be applied from December 1st although there is some confusion as to how they will work.
At the same time, Mr Anutin again voiced his opposition to moves to reopen the entertainment and nightlife sectors including plans to allow the widespread sale of alcohol except while dining.
The minister expressed his annoyance at confirmed reports that some city-centre bars in Bangkok had reopened and were operating as pubs for the benefit of foreign tourists in the centre of the city by taking advantage of the current regulations and in some cases, openly flouting the law.
50,000 doses of COVID-19 treatments drug ordered
On Friday, Minister Anutin revealed that Thailand has ordered 50,000 doses of the new virus drug Molnupiravir or 2 million pills from Merck & Co. This will give Thai hospitals access to the breakthrough oral treatment for COVID-19.
The country, also this week, signed a contract for 30 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine to be delivered next year.
CCSA asks the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to consider a revision of the 63 approved countries amid a rising COVID-19 threat and new Omicron virus strain
On Thursday, the Director-general of the Department of Disease Control and the Ministry of Public Health said his department was also supporting moves to reopen some sea and land entry channels to Thailand after confirmation of a low 0.08% rate of COVID-19 infection found in arrivals to date under the wider entry regime launched since November 1st.
On Friday, while outlining the easing of measures, Dr Opas Karnkawinpong confirmed that the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) has asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to consider the possibility of removing some countries from the list of 63 states and territories currently allowed to participate in the ‘Test and Go’ programme, which from December 1st will only require one antigen test on arrival after which the foreign tourist is free to travel in Thailand.
The basis for the move includes rising cases in Europe and concern over the new virus variant designated on Friday by the World Health Organisation as Omicron.
The loosening of control on incoming tourists is coming amid stubbornly high levels of infection in the kingdom which remain above the 5,000 per day level with 6,335 cases reported on Thursday following 7,218 the day before.
Still working on problems with Thailand Pass system and confusion over the Safety and Health Administration (SHA) Plus scheme
Earlier this week, with reports of some Thai hotels gouging foreign tourists by omitting to explain the full terms and conditions of the Test and Go scheme, Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha called on officials responsible for the Thailand Pass application to work harder to make the approval process for foreign tourists as seamless as possible.
There has been a noticeable improvement in the performance of Thailand Pass in recent weeks but issues continue to arise especially relating to the need to have Safety and Health Administration (SHA) Plus certified service providers.
Friday’s announcement of the elimination of the PCR test requirement should make this process easier but there needs to be more clarification on how the antigen testing under the new regime will be administered.
Concerns also about the new December 1st deadline
It is also not clear whether the Thailand Pass system and operators, including the 1,128 approved Safety and Health Administration (SHA) Plus hotels, will be ready to operate a new regime from December 1st with some reports suggesting a deferred date of December 16th.
What is clear is that the controlled regime and continued restrictions being driven by the country’s health authorities are contributing to continued uncertainty casting a pall over the foreign tourism industry with projections for 2021 now dwindling to between 300,000 to 400,000 arrivals.
Door closed on urgent requests from the bar and nightlife industry to open earlier than January 16th
On Friday also, the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) again confirmed that the bar and entertainment industry will be shuttered until January 16th.
Officials said this decision was a difficult one and that Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha had asked the Ministry of Labour to look for ways to alleviate the hardship on workers within the sector and for wider assistance measures.
Dr Taweesilp Visanuyothin told reporters he was aware that officials were working with business operators to prepare protocols and other measures for a reopening of the sector and if this went better than expected, an earlier date could possibly be announced.
Public opinion in Thailand, as in all countries globally, is still resolutely opposed to fully reopening foreign tourism in the completely unrestricted regime such as existed before 2019. Sadly for Thailand, it appears that without this the industry cannot recover to the critical levels needed to support the economy.
Notwithstanding this, the experience of western countries such as Europe, where there is a more pronounced entertainment and bar culture, has shown there is a genuine need for vigilance by Thailand’s public health leadership.
Situation regarding how antigen testing will be administered needs to be clarified for passengers
Ministry of Foreign Affairs deputy spokesman, Natapanu Nopakun, disclosed on Friday that these new changes will mean travellers will no longer have to book a Safety and Health Administration (SHA) Plus hotel for one night as part of the COVID-19 test requirement.
He later insisted that the antigen test must be taken at a hotel and that Safety and Health Administration (SHA) Plus approved travel must be used by foreign tourists to get there from the airport on arrival.
‘You will not need to book the actual hotel room, because of course, the test gives out a faster result,’ he said while commenting on the development but insisting that approved transport must be used to get to the hotel.
This appears to indicate that the Safety and Health Administration (SHA) Plus system and requirements remain in place for the scheme.
State of Emergency measures to be extended until the end of January 2022, curfew and deep red zones lifted
The Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) has also just approved plans to extend the State of Emergency in the kingdom until at least the end of January 2022.
The body, at the same time, lifted a nightly curfew that had still applied to some high-risk provinces.
The changes also include lifting the deep red status applying to some provinces which means the Governor of Chonburi province may have the discretion to allow the sale of alcohol in Pattaya for dining purposes at restaurants and hotels.
The former tourist hotspot has been left badly damaged by the COVID-19 pandemic with the city’s famous Walking Street nightlife area reportedly left mothballed as hopes for a December 1st reopening have been dashed.