Industry leaders from the Federation of Thai Industries to the Thai Chamber of Commerce have urged the government to expedite the plan to declare the COVID-19 virus as endemic with concerns that the country’s competitors in the foreign tourism industry have moved more decisively. There is also a view that the scrapping of the Thailand Pass application for incoming travellers will be the key move in the process, or as the country boss for Emirates, which brought 32% of all visitors to Thailand last year, described it this week, a potential ‘Golden Moment’ for the country’s foreign tourism sector.
The boss of Emirates Airline which flew a large proportion of all arrivals into Thailand in 2021 has expressed caution about the country’s stated plans to fully cast aside all travel restrictions from July 1st next in a four-phase plan which is now underway. It comes as the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Public Health, Dr Kiattiphum Wongrajit, has said the timetable is dependent on both approval from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and controlling incoming infection levels at below 1%.
Thailand’s tourism industry is entering into a critical period as the kingdom’s phased and careful reopening to foreign arrivals without restrictions targeted for July 1st next, finds itself challenged by moves from competitor destinations who have acted decisively to reopen their borders and attract visitors.
This has led to calls by industry leaders to the government, over the last week, to hasten its published four-phase programme to lift restrictions which aims to see the kingdom return to open access after July 1st under normal travel conditions before March 2020 when the COVID-19 virus is expected to be declared endemic.
Endemic status by the target date of July 1st subject to WHO approval and low incoming passenger infection levels said top public health official this week
However, in recent days, key officials such as the permanent secretary at the powerful Ministry of Public Health, Dr Kiattiphum Wongrajit, have made it clear that such plans are conditional first of all in the run-up to the endemic declaration, on the percentage of arrivals at Thai airports found to be carrying the virus with a target for this to be under 1% by the end of June.
Thailand moving to scrap all tourist restrictions this year once the Covid virus is declared endemic
Dr Kiattiphum has also suggested that the declaration that the virus is endemic is subject to approval by the World Health Organisation.
Be careful not to equate the word ‘endemic’ with good, chides World Health Organisation boss
On March 18th, Dr Mike Ryan of the World Health Organisation (WHO), however, chided reporters about the use of the term ‘endemic’ and suggested that it would be wrong to assume it was a good thing.
‘I think we need to be careful here in terms of the word endemic. Endemic means that the virus is present and transmitting at lower levels, usually with some form of seasonal transmission or increases that are seasonal or outbreaks on top of an endemic situation. That’s very classic for many infectious diseases, but remember endemic HIV and endemic tuberculosis and endemic malaria kill millions of people on this planet every year. So please don’t equate endemic with equals good,’ Ryan said. ‘Endemic diseases require strong control programmes to reduce the infections, reduce the suffering and reduce the death. It’s changing from pandemic to endemic is just changing the label.’
Federation of Thai Industries boss calls for faster and simpler entry procedures for incoming travellers
On the same day, Supant Mongkolsuthree, the Chairman of the Federation of Thai Industries, called on the government to move faster to simplify entry into the country for vaccinated travellers even before endemic status is announced.
He suggested that travellers entering Thailand should just be required to show their passports and proof of vaccination status at this time.
He pointed out that, this year, could see Thailand welcome 6 million visitors or 15% of what was seen in 2019 and this would be enough to kickstart a recovery in the sector which this pandemic has shown plays a key role in powering the economy.
He also highlighted that this will see more confidence and a return of the domestic tourism market.
‘Throughout this year, there will be 6 million tourists visiting Thailand. It is expected that the average per capita expenditure during tourism is ฿100,000, which means that Thailand will have an income of ฿600 million. This will bring economic activities back to normal. And it is also expected that there will be 126.4 million Thais travelling to Thailand at this time per year, so the combined income from both Thai and foreign tourists is more than ฿1 trillion.’
Travel industry leaders write to the PM
It comes as Mr Poomkit Raktae Ngam, the President of the Phuket Provincial Tourism Business Association, has revealed that 13 business organisations in seven different provinces affiliated with the tourism industry, have written to the Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha expressing concern that the kingdom is losing out to other countries.
‘The Thai tourism industry is being challenged by entry measures in countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, South Korea, Australia and many European countries,’ he warned.
He said that a failure to respond to these developments could have both short term and long term economic effects.
Thai Chamber of Commerce boss wants a declaration of endemic status speeded up and an end to the crisis
This was underlined by the Chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, Sanan Angubolkul, in recent days when he said that the declaration of endemic status and the end to the pandemic must be speeded up.
‘Thailand should speed up the virus downgrade to an endemic disease and relax restrictions. The private sector is ready to discuss the matter with the government to support efforts to reopen the country more quickly,’ he warned.
This comes as the government has extended the Emergency Decree linked to the pandemic situation until the end of May.
Top airline boss cautious about government’s plan to end emergency measures for foreign tourism sector
The uncertainty about the government’s plan was also echoed by Mr Tariq Al Mutawa, the country manager in Thailand for Emirates, the international airline headquartered in Dubai which accounts for a significant amount of incoming traffic to the kingdom.
The airline boss indicated, this week, that his company is adopting a cautious approach to the current situation given that Thailand is still officially operating within a pandemic and given the fact that public health considerations can change quickly and unpredictably.
Only forecasting a modest 20% gain on last year
In the absence of a breakthrough, such as the declaration that the virus is endemic and that there will be a complete return to normality, Emirates is only forecasting a 20% growth in traffic for this year compared to last year which saw the airline operating at 7.6% of normal capacity on routes into Thailand.
‘The goal at the moment is to grow the number of passengers by 20% year-on-year which is the lowest forecast. The airline has to monitor both local and international situations on a monthly or even weekly basis before adding more frequencies to Thailand,’ he revealed.
Emirates flew 1.8 million people into Thailand in 2019 and in 2021, it accounted for 32% of all arrivals
Before the pandemic, the airline flew 1.8 million people into Thailand in the last year of normal conditions in 2019.
Last year, there were 136,451 passengers on its hugely popular Dubai to Bangkok route. Dubai acts as a hub for flights worldwide but particularly for Europe.
The airline accounted for nearly 32% of all arrivals into Thailand last year.
The total number of visitors in figures published by the Ministry of Tourism and Sports showed only 427,969 visitors in 2021 or 1.07% of the number seen in 2019 when 39.8 million foreign tourists were seen in the kingdom.
In an interview this week, Mr Al Mutawa referred to what he termed the ‘Golden Moment’ when Thailand scraps the unpopular and difficult Thailand Pass online application which is seen as the key impediment right now to the kingdom returning to a higher visitor level.
‘We are waiting for the golden moment when the government decides to let the Thailand Pass go, so it mostly depends on the government and how they control the border for passengers to Thailand,’ he pointed out.
Top airline maintains a 70% to 90% load level on three flights daily from Dubai to Bangkok and 11 weekly flights to Phuket but at only 40% frequency
Currently, Emirates operates three flights a day from Dubai to Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok with 11 weekly flights linking the Arabian hub with Phuket.
Mr Al Mutawa disclosed that current flights are managing to maintain a 70% to 90% load level but with flight frequency limited to 40% of levels seen in the pre-pandemic era.
Emirates has recently signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the Tourism Authority of Thailand to work together to boost inward arrivals to the kingdom particularly when the industry returns to normal.
From April 1st no need for a COVID test within 72 hours before departure to Thailand with Phase Two
The latest moves by public health authorities and the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) has seen confirmation of a plan to remove the 72 hour COVID-19 PCR test requirement before leaving for Thailand.
This new regime will begin on April 1st.
It will see all vaccinated tourists under the Test and Go regime tested on arrival with a PCR test and a second requirement to perform a supervised antigen test at their hotel on Day 5.
The government has also increased the number of entry points to the country by air, sea and land at selected points.
The move was confirmed in advance of the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration meeting by the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Public Health Dr Kiattiphum Wongrajit last Wednesday as he also outlined the plan ahead until the pandemic is deemed to be at an end.
‘Under the proposed entry rules, travellers under the Test & Go scheme would no longer be required to show negative RT-PCR test results up to 72 hours before departure to the kingdom,’ he explained ahead of the meeting which endorsed the opening steps of the plan.
Still in the first or ‘combating’ phase
He described the phase right now up to April 1st next as the ‘combating phase’ when the infection rate arrivals are still expected to be higher than 3%.
This phase still sees a 10 day quarantine period in place for unvaccinated travellers and more restrictions for Sandbox type visitors.
Dr Kiattiphum suggested that this period could be extended beyond April 1st if the infection rate stays higher than 3%.
The ‘plateau’ or second phase in the government’s plan begins on April 1st with the removals of the COVID-19 PCR test before travel as announced last Friday.
However, the guidelines suggest that an infection rate of between 1% and 3% on incoming arrivals will be required.
There is still a $20,000 insurance requirement including coverage for COVID-19 but last Friday, Dr Taweesilp Visanuyothin, the key Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) spokesman, suggested that this may be looked at and possibly reduced to $10,000 at some point.
The third phase after May 1st or the ‘declining’ phase will remove all testing for vaccinated passengers
In the third phase which has been called the ‘declining’ phase, all vaccinated arrivals will be allowed to enter without any further test requirements or limitations although the Thailand Pass system will be still in effect.
Unvaccinated passengers will be required to take only an antigen test on arrival.
This third phase will run from May 1st until June 30th next provided infection rates are below 1%.
Fourth phase or endemic targeted for July 1st
The plan is to have COVID-19 declared endemic by July 1st which will lead to the country returning to normal and passengers being able to arrive without prior notification through the Thailand Pass system or any requirement whatsoever beyond those which existed before the pandemic in early 2020.
This included a normal visa, visa on arrival or cash requirement to be inspected upon entry.
Most observers believe that this will be a significant rebound point for incoming traffic to the country at this point.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has even projected that the country could see up to 18 million visitors in 2022. This would require a sea change from the current level of foreign tourists entering Thailand.
The latest official figures show that in January just 133,903 visitors entered Thailand compared to 230,947 in December.
Removal of Thailand Pass, the pernickety, tortuous online app to gain entry to Thailand from July 1st
Despite a sharp improvement in the operation of the Thailand Pass system which initially led to a broader reopening accompanied by a barrage of criticism amid initial glitches and unpredictable processing times for travellers on deadlines.
Travellers remain critical of the process itself and the amount of online documentation required to process an application due to its pernickety nature with an inability to save a pending application when documentation is found not to be at hand and a peculiar requirement that all PDF files must be converted to picture format for processing purposes.
Tourism engine ready for takeoff
The current situation is that many potential travellers to Thailand, just like the Emirates boss in Bangkok, Mr Al Mutaw, are still cautious about the promised July 1st date for a return to normality.
What he described as the ‘golden moment’ may well be takeoff time for the still quite dormant foreign tourism industry in the kingdom which has proved itself to be one of the main engines powering Thailand’s economy.