Shock development will upend the recovery of the foreign tourism sector which only this week saw some life being breathed into foreign tourist hotspots such as Pattaya. The decision still has to be made by the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) but it will immediately create chaos, confusion and a tidal wave of cancellations. After that, the wider and negative impact on the Thai economy for 2022 will begin.
Thailand’s foreign tourism industry is facing its worst nightmare with a proposal to be placed before the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) to cancel the ‘Test and Go’ entry scheme which has driven 71% of arrivals since the country’s broader reopening to 63 foreign countries went ahead on November 1st. The decision, if it goes ahead, will lead to a tidal wave of cancellations and is already generating chaos and confusion among tens of thousands of potential holidaymakers across the world in the process of making end of year arrangements to visit Thailand. The news came out of the blue on Monday morning with a statement by Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul and a briefing by the Department of Medical Sciences chief at the Ministry of Public Health, Dr Supakit Sirilak who explained that a sudden rise in incoming Omicron cases in the last week had brought about the decision to act.
Thailand’s foreign tourism is facing disaster after reports emerged on Monday morning that the ‘Test and Go’ system operated with Thailand Pass which has allowed more convenient access to the kingdom may be suspended.
It comes as just over the weekend the industry reported some signs of normality and recovery albeit still at a dramatically reduced level since 2019.
Monday morning bombshell from the Minister of Public Health pulls the rug from under the foreign tourism industry struggling to recover
Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul then dropped a bombshell on Monday morning when he announced that because of a large increase in the number of arrivals into the kingdom being found with the Omicron virus in recent days, public health officials were now submitting a proposal to the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCCA) to pause the quick entry system.
The minister said that quick action is now required to buy time and to slow down the rise of Omicron in Thailand which could threaten the broader economy.
Wife of an airline pilot who flies to Nigeria becomes the first woman in Thailand infected by Omicron
On Monday, Dr Chakrarat Pittayawong of the Department of Disease Control revealed that the first woman had detected Omicron in Thailand.
She was the wife of an airline pilot who flew flights between Thailand and Nigeria.
‘Right now, we have to urgently take measures to cut power from the beginning of the wind. All 63 people have come from abroad. There is only one husband who is a pilot. His wife stays at home. These are Thai people who live together. Husband has come from abroad. Linked with the wife. It is unlikely to spread. But if you let go, one day it will definitely go out to the market. We will have to go back and take necessary measures,’ Minister Anutin said on Monday.
Worst fear of the tourism industry comes true
If it goes ahead, it will confirm the worst fears of tourism industry leaders who only last week warned that a sudden disruption to the latest tourism revival and efforts to breathe life into the decimated foreign tourism industry could spell disaster.
Omicron is a spectre in the background which threatens to uproot the current reopening with caution being the watchword of tourism operators
This news on Monday comes after mixed signals emerged in recent weeks again of a new tack by tourism agencies and the ministry towards less volume but higher-income travellers which had already sparked alarm among regular visitors to the kingdom who constitute a significant proportion of visitors in the wider industry.
Test and Go represented 71% of arrivals from 63 countries that have seen huge surges of Omicron
Figures since the opening of Thailand to 63 countries under the no quarantine ‘Test and Go’ system from early November showed that the scheme accounted for 71% of arrivals.
71% of arrivals are fully vaccinated passengers from the 63 countries eligible for ‘Test and Go’, most require manual verification of certificates
At the same time, public health officials only last week recommended extending the quarantine period for vaccinated foreign tourists under the more complicated Sandbox regime from five to seven days.
The reason given was the rapid spread of Omicron in countries around the world, an escalating situation that is now changing with every 24 hour news cycle as reported cases worldwide are doubling every 48 hours.
Now all arrivals must negotiate the unpopular and highly complicated Sandbox entry process again
If the current proposal is agreed by the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) as proposed this week, it will mean that all arrivals must either enter Thailand through the unpopular and complicated sandbox scheme or submit to expensive alternative quarantine arrangements.
The move spells a death knell for the current efforts of the foreign tourism industry to recover at this time and will lead to chaos across the world among travellers busy booking flights to Thailand and those who had bookings made for January in what is the peak season for tourism in the kingdom.
Tourist who tested negative before flight and after arrival later tested positive for the Omicron virus
As well as Minister Anutin, Dr Supakit Sirilak, the Director-general of the Department of Medical Sciences at the ministry addressed reporters on Monday.
He cited the case of a foreign tourist arrival who had tested negative for COVID-19 before flying to Thailand and after arrival but later tested positive for the new variant on holiday in Thailand.
He said the case was being studied by officials and scientists as the incoming passenger was infectious for 6 to 7 days.
The public health official also revealed that all Omicron cases detected in Thailand, so far, were from incoming travellers. He stressed that there was not yet an index case or source of local infection in Thailand of the Omicron strain.
The Omicron variant was not, as far as officials are aware, transmitting locally yet in Thailand.
Rising cases of Omicron being detected in line with an international pattern explained official at the Ministry of Public Health at Monday morning’s briefing
But this could change quickly.
World Health Organisation (WHO) guidance suggests that this may now be inevitable.
‘If Test and Go is not reviewed, then infected but undetected arrivals can right away travel farther inside the country and cause clusters of infections,’ Dr Supakit explained. ‘The infection rate will be expanding,’ he warned.
There were 80 cases of the variant found from April this year according to the health official this morning, dating back to well before the new Omicron variant was highlighted by South Africa in November to the World Health Organisation (WHO) as one of concern.
He said that from December 11th cases had begun to rise with 52 cases reported alone from December 11th to December 19th and more reports coming on Monday morning. It is suggested that, so far, 20 more cases have been reported.
Dr Supakit said that Omicron accounted for one in four of arrivals who tested positive for COVID-19 on arrival as of now.
‘Most Omicron cases detected were arrivals at Suvarnabhumi Airport and they formed a quarter of the Covid-19 cases found there. The case numbers increased quite quickly over the past week, which corresponded with the global situation,’ Dr Supakit explained.
He pointed to the worldwide surge of the Omicron variant and said that this would be growing apace.
Omicron now threatens to scupper the kingdom’s economic growth prospects heading into 2022
Last week, the World Bank warned that if Omicron emerged as a significant threat to Thailand’s reopening process and foreign tourism recovery efforts, this could impact the wider economy in 2022.
The kingdom’s projected growth rate of 3.9% for next year which depends on 7 million foreign tourists would be imperilled and it could be facing an economic contraction of the order of 0.3%
The immediate fallout from this decision will, in the short term, be confusion and chaos as tens of thousands of foreign travellers already confirmed will be left in limbo with the threatened cancellation of ‘Test and Go’ very likely to see a huge wave of booking cancellations also with already struggling foreign tourism concerns including hotels and airlines throughout Thailand.