The news comes with rising foreign tourist arrivals from April reportedly up by 66% this week as the requirement for a pre-departure test and a certificate was abolished, as planned, on April 1st. This was Phase Two of a Four-Phase plan which has been thrown out of kilter by proposals from Bhumjaithai Party ministers this week which emphasised the retention of an antigen test on arrival for visitors after May 1st when all testing was scheduled to be removed. Despite Friday’s postponement, CCSA spokesman, Dr Taweesilp Visanuyothin, did emphasise that there was a will to further ease restrictions on incoming travellers.
The Thai government has been moving away from its full reopening plan for foreign tourism announced at the start of the year with a clear path to end all restrictions by July 1st and a declaration of endemic status. It comes as the economic imperative to boost the foreign tourism industry has never been stronger or more timely with rising prices and declining world trade but also with a potential opportunity with the prospect of a declining baht. On Friday, a decision on an already altered proposal to replace RT-PCR tests on arrival with an antigen test from May 1st was postponed at a meeting of the key COVID-19 emergency coordinating body when the Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, requested data relating to infections after the Songkran holiday period in mid-April.
There are worrying signs for the travel industry that the government is becoming increasingly cautious and wary about the COVID-19 situation following comments by the Thai Prime Minister over the last week suggesting that the current easing of restrictions could easily be reversed and a decision on Friday by the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) to put off what would have been in itself an aberration from a clear four-phase plan outlined by the Ministry of Public Health, earlier this year, which projected that from May 1st or Phase three of that plan, the country would see all testing removed for incoming vaccinated travellers.
After Friday’s decision there remains an RT-PCR test on arrival which requires the booking of an approved hotel for one night and the need for an antigen test on Day 5 of the visitor’s stay.
Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) spokesman Dr Taweesilp Visanuyothin emphasised the will to further ease restrictions after Songkran
Following Friday’s meeting in Bangkok, Dr Taweesilp Visanuyothin of the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), however, made it clear that the government is moving towards allaying restrictions but must act cautiously because of the danger presented by the Songkran holiday period which commences on April 13th next.
Dr Taweesilp explained that Prime Minister, Prayut Chan ocha, would study the infection rates which have been on an upward trajectory in Thailand over the last month, after the holiday period.
‘The prime minister wants to see the figures after Songkran,’ he said and also pointed out that the government leader would be looking at the data concerning infection rates for incoming travellers.
Earlier this week, the prime minister bluntly suggested that restrictions on travellers could be re-imposed and matters revert to ‘stage one’ if anyone involved in the process fails to act responsibly.
Minister of Tourism’s proposal on March 24th was a variation from the Ministry of Public Health’s four-phase plan earlier outlined by health officials
There has been confusion since an announcement by the Minister of Tourism and Sports Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn, on March 24th, suggesting that instead of the elimination of RT-PCR testing from May 1st and indeed all tests, the government would retain a medically supervised antigen test on arrival in Thailand.
Retention of an antigen test on arrival is a backward step from the complete abolition of measures suggested for July 1st by the Ministry of Public Health
At the time, Minster Phiphat also referred to the overall infection rate in the kingdom in contrast to Dr Kiattiphum Wongrajit, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Public Health when he outlined the four-phase full reopening process at the beginning of the year.
The senior official emphasised that the key metric would be infection rates among incoming passengers, the overwhelming majority of whom are already vaccinated.
Endemic status by the target date of July 1st subject to WHO approval and low incoming passenger infection levels says top public health official
On Thursday, the Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakulm, a Bhumjaithai Party cabinet colleague of Minister Phiphat, confirmed a proposal to replace the RT-PCR test with quicker antigen tests on arrival from May 1 st would depend on the kingdom’s performance during the Songkran festival period.
While the move was seen as an easing of the current level of restrictions, it is a step backwards from the plan originally published by the Ministry of Public Health which promised the abolition of all testing for vaccinated arrivals from May 1st.
However, it should be noted that this plan was conditional on lowering incoming passenger infection rates and approval by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
April arrivals show easing restrictions works and could lead to a significant and badly needed rebound in foreign tourism after a reported 66% spike
The Four-phase reopening process leading to the return to pre-pandemic entry procedures for arrivals by July 1st next had offered clear forward guidance to the industry and potential travellers to Thailand.
This now appears to have been thrown out of kilter by the proposals emanating from the Bhumjaithai Party cabinet ministers and Friday’s decision by an increasingly cautious prime minister.
The introduction of Phase Two of Thailand’s reopening to foreign tourism has already seen a 66% spike in the number of arrivals into the kingdom since April 1st.
The number arriving through Suvarnabhumi Airport has risen from an average of 7,003 in March to 11,623 in the opening days of April.
The numbers were confirmed by Kittipong Kittikachorn, the General Manager at the airport in Samut Prakan who also revealed an increase in incoming flights to 141 a day and preparations to open an extra terminal as the industry springs back to life.
Key economists, officials and tourism industry leaders believe that Thailand must boost arrivals this year due to rapidly shifting economic conditions
However, quietly, there is an underlying belief among officials and key business leaders that these numbers will be insufficient to satisfy the country’s economic needs in 2022.
The year sees Thailand relying on a pick up in tourism with the industry seeking to achieve somewhere near 25% of the ฿2 trillion generated in 2019 or up to 10 million passengers.
This week, the World Bank downgraded the projected growth rate for the Thai economy to 2.9% and predicted that tourist arrivals of 6.2 million would be a key factor in helping the economy weather the increasingly negative impact of the Ukraine war, a tightening of money supply driven by the US Federal Reserve and the re-emergence of COVID-19 in China which is severely impairing the economy of Thailand’s second-largest export market.
Many economists are now speculating that rising interest rates in the United States and the elimination of quantitative easing as the Fed also sells off bonds, will see the United States economy slow down.
A stronger US dollar may make incoming tourism a vital opportunity for the kingdom amid higher costs
Significantly, a CNN survey this week showed that 80% of respondents predicted short term interest rates by the end of 2022 in the US to be somewhere between 2.5% and 2.75%.
This should lead to a strengthening of the US dollar and a lower Thai baht as money flows out of emerging markets particularly if a dovish Bank of Thailand continues to leave Thai interest rates at their historic low of 0.5%.
This week also, the Ministry of Commerce confirmed that Thailand’s inflation rates will be somewhere in the region of 4% to 5%, a scenario also suggested previously by the Vice President of Siam Commercial Bank in Bangkok, Yanyong Thaicharoen who predicted a rate of 4.9% but warned that if the war with Ukraine is prolonged, it could cause inflation to rise to an annualised rate of 6.3% in Thailand.
War in Ukraine is the most decisive factor in the country’s economic outlook further into 2022, prolonged conflict will see inflation at 6.3%
Speaking before the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, April 5th, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, told members that he assessed that the war in Ukraine would be prolonged and extend to years although, at the outset of the war, General Milley had previously opined it could be over in 72 hours.
Thailand’s Tourism Council still believes that 16 million tourists could come to Thailand in 2022, nearly 300% more than projected by economists
Since the resumption of the Test and Go scheme earlier this year, the number of arrivals to Thailand has been growing steadily from 133,903 visitors in January, 152,954 arrivals in February and an estimated number of well over 200,000 reaching the kingdom in March as we await official confirmation.
However, the Tourism Council of Thailand wants to see upwards of 2 million visitors a month entering the country and is still projecting that Thailand can achieve a surprisingly high 16 million foreign tourist arrivals in 2022.
At the end of March, the President of the body, Chamnan Srisawat, called on the government to move swiftly to dismantle the COVID-19 controls imposed after March 2020.
He warned that his industry was still struggling with 14% of hotels still laying off staff although confidence had returned in recent months and the situation was improving.
‘Tourism operators are still struggling to maintain business as the number of tourists has yet to fully rebound due to the current travel rules. This obstacle needs to be removed before more operators collapse,’ he said.
Foreign tourism is one of Thailand’s key economic assets and one that needs to be exploited in 2022
Throughout the pandemic era, one of the lessons that economists and observers of the Thai economy have learned is that the tourism industry is a key asset of the country and an extremely valuable engine of economic development.
The income from foreign tourism and the activities relating to the trade act like a dynamo in powering both the domestic economy and earning foreign income.
As things stand, a combination of a declining baht and easier access to the kingdom may be a potential recipe for an upside surprise for a change in 2022.
However, a stark warning this week from the prime minister must be taken seriously although officials of the Ministry of Public Health have long insisted that the disease will be declared endemic later in the year.
Prime Minister, this week, sounded an ominous, gloomy tone about the prospects for reopening to tourism and the country’s battle against COVID-19
As the process of opening to visitors and giving rein to its foreign tourism industry continues to ramp up, General Prayut sounded an ominous note.
It came the day after the kingdom withdrew the requirements for a pre-flight test and certificate on April 2nd.
The PM appeared to make it quite clear to all involved in the industry that a reversal of the present course was possible if the current virus situation begins to go awry.
‘From now on, if anything happens, we must accept collective responsibility. But we have made full preparations. I listened to the pros and cons and have eased restrictions wherever possible,’ he warned. ‘But if anything comes to pass, we will have to go back to square one. This is the difficult part of running the country.’
On Thursday, the prime minister sounded a similar gloomy note when he warned that the country’s war against the COVID-19 virus was far from being won.
The prime minister, on Friday, told the public that the World Health Organisation (WHO) had warned of a hybrid version of the Omicron virus which itself has not been properly controlled in Thailand.
He warned the new strain was even more infectious and could cause reinfections.
PM talked about the need for vaccines, boosters and the danger posed to the population by long COVID
The government leader urged the Thai public to get booster shots as he urged people to seek protection from the virus in the form of further vaccination.
He particularly urged families with young children under 5 to have them vaccinated.
This follows concern in the kingdom at the reported death of several young children from the disease in recent times who were found not to have been inoculated.
Concerns about a possible uptick of the virus in Thailand have led five leading medical institutions in the kingdom to unite and issue an open letter calling on the public to get vaccinated and even receive booster shots where appropriate.
The institutions were the Royal College of Physicians of Thailand, the Infectious Disease Association of Thailand, the Preventive Medicine Association of Thailand, the Thai Society of Critical Care Medicine and the Thoracic Society of Thailand.
The PM also urged all adults to monitor their health carefully for symptoms of what is called ‘long covid’ which affects many people who have had COVID-19 not only in Thailand but everywhere in the world.
Long covid is widespread and very prevalent in Asia, middle-aged people and women according to research
Long COVID-19 manifests itself in terms of tiredness, shortness of breath, chest pain with tightness and problems with memory or concentration.
This latter syndrome has been referred to as ‘brain fog’ and is a major debilitating factor. Other symptoms include joint pain and changes to the sufferer’s sense of smell or taste.
A worldwide study by researchers at the University of Michigan into the health of nearly 900,000 people who have had COVID-19, showed that nearly 43% of all those infected with the disease suffered from the syndrome with the number weighted higher for those infected in Asia where the figure rose to 49%.
Those who suffer from long covid are also more likely to be women, aged 35 to 50 years of age, people with existing underlying conditions, those working in health, social care or education and people living in poorer areas.
Well received and clear path to fully lifting all entry restrictions, the four-phase plan presented earlier this year by the Ministry of Public Health
Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health, at the beginning of the year, laid out a plan for the foreign tourism industry whereby all current restrictions would be lifted in a carefully laid out and phased programme.
Travel sector calls for endemic status, scrapping of Thailand Pass and full normality on entry to the country
The plan was presented by the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Public Health Dr Kiattiphum Wongrajit.
It is contingent on the virus being declared endemic in Thailand later this year and afterwards remaining on track.
The envisaged declaration of endemic status was to be accompanied by the removal of all restrictions including the Thailand Pass system which was to be made redundant by July 1st.
We are currently in Phase Two or the ‘Plateau Phase’ of the scheme which proposed and saw the elimination of the pre-departure RT-PCR test and certificate from April 1st.
No more visitor testing after May 1st in Phase Three or ‘Declining phase’ based on incoming infections
The third phase of the plan, originally outlined by the Ministry of Public Health was that from May 1st, there were to be no further tests for arriving travellers.
On Friday, this was meant to have been changed with a proposal to the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration for the removal of the RT-PCR test requirement from May 1st replacing it with an antigen test on arrival while also retaining the requirement for a second entry test on Day 5 after arrival in Thailand.
Friday’s wait and see decision by the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) means that the plan unveiled by the Ministry of Public Health earlier in the year is now seriously off track if things do not change by May 1st.
The spike in visitor numbers from April 1st when the pre-departure RT-PCR test was removed by authorities shows the correlation between the removal of restrictions, red tape and testing and the potential rebound of the tourism industry and consequently the overall economy.
First shift from the Public Health ministry’s plan came from the Minister of Tourism on March 24th
Ironically, the first suggestion that any tests on arrival would be maintained after May 1st came from the Minister of Tourism and Sports Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn on March 24th when addressing the Association of Thai Travel Agents.
At the same time, the minister promised to push for the elimination of the Thailand Pass scheme by June 1st which would have been 30 days earlier than the schedule proposed by the Ministry of Public Health which had designated this development for Phase four to begin on July 1st next.
This is seen as a significant potential booster to incoming tourist traffic.
Minister says Thailand Pass could be gone by June 1st but suggests the retention of a test on arrival
All of this is, of course, and was always conditional on COVID-19 infection rates coming down or at least under 50,000 to 60,000 cases including antigen and RT-PCR testing after the Songkran holiday according to the Ministry of Tourism and Sports.
Thailand recorded its highest day of published infections for COVID-19 on April 1st at 28,379 which according to the Department of Disease Control included both RT-PCR tests and rapid antigen tests.