Indications that the kingdom will drop entry restrictions after the Songkran holidays come to an end. The news is coming with an encouraging take off in entry numbers in response to previous moves to lighten the load on travellers. There is now every reason to believe that the kingdom’s critical and highly lucrative foreign tourism industry could turn into an economic bright spot for 2022 provided another Covid storm does not descend.
Senior Thai officials within the government, in recent days, have talked up the kingdom’s plans to fully reopen after the Songkran holiday period with a plan already agreed in principle to reduce paperwork associated with the Thailand Pass system as well as insurance requirements while also replacing the RT-PCR test with an antigen test on arrival. This is despite one senior doctor with the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) suggesting the country may already be experiencing 100,000 infections a day. Dr Udom Kachintorn, a key advisor, however, points out that by comparison, infection levels among incoming tourists are far lower.
Tourist arrivals to Thailand have begun to take off with officials in Suvarnabhumi Airport forced to act this week to deal with congestion and logistical problems in the arrival halls.
This situation comes with growing optimism that 2022 will see a takeoff for the industry and indications by top officials that despite rising COVID-19 infection levels, we will see the current RT-PCR test on arrival replaced by quicker and more informal antigen tests after the Songkran holiday period.
As numbers of tourist arrivals have begun to surge, leading to the chaos in recent days at the main airport, top government officials are going out of their way to emphasise the willingness of the government to further liberalise the entry regime while insisting that all still depends on the path of the virus and in particular, the effect of the Songkran holiday festivities currently underway to celebrate the Thai new year.
Deputy permanent secretary at Ministry of the Interior says full reopening to proceed after Songkran
This week, Chaiwat Chuenkosum, the deputy permanent secretary at the Ministry of the Interior told reporters that it was increasingly likely that the kingdom will proceed with its plans for a full reopening of the country at that point.
This was also the line taken by former premier Abhisit Vejjajiva, on Tuesday, who said that the government was facing a rising economic imperative after two years of economic devastation to the economy to reopen fully to international tourism.
This has been particularly aggravated by the competition Thailand is facing from other worldwide tourist destinations such as the Maldives which have reopened as the pandemic and the virus threat, while not being officially declared endemic as of yet, is increasingly being treated as a fact of life that countries and people must live with.
Ex-premier Abhisit worried about Songkran’s impact
Mr Abhisit said that while the government has plans to declare the virus endemic, he was concerned about the aftermath of the Songkran festivities.
‘I’m worried the post-Songkran festival numbers will probably not go down,’ he said.
The former premier indicated that the way forward was for the government to target the more vulnerable in the community with its vaccination programme including an estimated one million Thai people, over 60, who are not yet inoculated.
Virus threat remains for older and non-vaccinated people in the population says Dr Prasit Watanapa, must vaccinate more to see lower fatality rates
The residual threat from the virus was explained by Dr Prasit Watanapa, the Dean of Siriraj Hospital’s renowned medical school which is part of Mahidol University, a key adviser to the Thai government and the Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha.
He said the key goal for authorities must be to reduce the fatalities that derive from the virus which looks like it will continue to spread but currently has an elevated level of resultant deaths.
He said the key to this was vaccination and pointed out that 50% to 60% of those who had died recently from COVID-19 were not vaccinated while 85% to 90% were from vulnerable groups such as the very aged and with underlying conditions.
Dr Prasit said that the acceptable level of fatalities from the disease was 0.1% or less of the number of daily infections.
Current death rates are still too high – Siriraj boss
On this basis, he said that the current death rates are more than 3 to 4 times the acceptable level.
For instance, with 20,000 infections, there should be no more than 20 deaths.
To put this in perspective, in the last two days Thailand recorded 42,997 cases with confirmed deaths of 207 or 0.481%.
The top medic would like to see more emphasis on vaccination as does former Premier Abhisit who said that vulnerable people in society must receive a full course of vaccines including first and second booster shots.
Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) boss predicts further easing of restrictions shortly after Songkran
Meanwhile, the Governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Yuthasak Supasorn, has suggested that after Songkran there will be a further easing of entry restrictions including not only a switch to the more convenient and swift antigen tests on arrival from the current RT-PCR test stipulated but a reduction in the insurance requirement from the current $20,000 and changes to the Thailand Pass application although not yet its abolition which is being demanded by a chorus of both travellers and foreign tourist business concerns, at this stage.
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This has been confirmed by Dr Taweesilp Visanuyothin who has followed up on the briefing given after the last Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) meeting in which Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha ordered a review of data after the Songkran holiday to include infection rates and clinical data across Thailand as well as incoming infection rates.
Reform of Thailand Pass on the cards as well as a lower insurance requirement, all agreed in principle
Dr Taweesilp stressed that while all must be dependent on due regard to any potential public health threats, measures have been agreed upon in principle not only to replace the RT-PCR test for tourists on arrival but also other moves to make Thailand more competitive.
He said this will not yet include the abolition of the Thailand Pass entry app but a reduction in the number of documents being required to be submitted. The elimination of the app is also not off the table for the future.
The key spokesman said that these relaxations have been agreed upon in principle and will be made across the board.
The changes will impact those arriving under the Test and Go programme, the sandbox schemes and alternative quarantine programmes.
Airlines and business leaders cautious and fear an about-turn if COVID numbers surge after the holiday
This comes as there is concern within the travel industry including airlines that the evolving situation is still fraught with risk and that the government may be forced into an about-turn if the level of infections and deaths remain high.
The travel sector calls for endemic status, scrapping of Thailand Pass and full normality on entry to the country
One key medical official, Dr Udom Kachintorn, who works with the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), estimates that even now, real infection rates in the kingdom are running at 100,000 per day with many confirmed antigen tests not being reported and other infections going undetected at all.
Top government doctor: infection among incoming travellers significantly lower than local infection rates
However, Dr Udom agreed with moves towards relaxing entry into the kingdom to spur on the economy.
He pointed out that the level of infections among incoming arrivals was quite low compared to the prevalent level of local infection.
The foreign tourism industry has the potential to become an increasingly bright spot economically for the kingdom as the year progresses with many now estimating that the country can exceed the 6.2 million visitors projected last week by the World Bank and hit up to 10 million if the current restrictions on entry are eliminated.
Bullish Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) boss sees a return to millions of tourists per month in 2022
Speaking this week, Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) boss Yuthasak Supasorn was bullish, predicting over a million visitors a month in the last quarter of 2022 but anticipated some restrictions remaining in place.
‘Assuming most of our entry rules are lifted and the Chinese market can return, we may be able to run at full speed for the last three months this year,’ the tourist agency governor said. ‘Prior to the pandemic, we had at least 3 million arrivals a month in the fourth quarter. This year we may see 30% of that level.’
Key economists, officials and tourism industry leaders believe that Thailand must boost arrivals this year due to rapidly shifting economic conditions
Official figures for the first quarter show the kingdom received just 476,000 visitors but this was well ahead of the 421,000 seen for the whole of 2021.
Speculation of a return of Chinese tourists this year but that market will still take time to redevelop
There is even talk of a return of Chinese tourists to Thailand at the end of the year if the communist country lifts the current border restrictions imposed on its populace.
A cautious Association of Thai Travel Agents President, Sisadiwat Cheewaratanaporn, emphasised, this week, that the situation in China was difficult to predict particularly with the worrying resurgence of lockdown restrictions seen in recent days in Shanghai.
He also suggested that matters may become more predictable in China after the Communist Party holds its 20th National Congress in the autumn.
Nonetheless, he remained hopeful that there may be some limited return of the key market which contributed over 27% of visitors in Thailand’s record year of 2019.
Mr Sisadiwat pointed out that, even if the trade resumes, there may still be barriers with long quarantine periods for visitors on their return home and a need to build up the necessary flights links with China with many airlines remaining extremely wary given their tumultuous experience since 2020.
All seasons tourism from China welcomed
If Chinese tourists do return, they would be welcome in Thailand as they are a constant source of foreign tourism traffic for the kingdom which would not be seasonally dependent.
‘Thai tourism is in dire need of the Chinese market as they are year-round travellers, unlike European guests, the key market for Thailand at the moment. European visitors are rather seasonal. However, we should wait and see for a clearer statement from Chinese authorities,’ he said.
Air bubble with India is proving successful with a potential for 80,000 visitors a month after May
At the same time, both the Tourism Authority of Thailand and Thai Airways are co-operating in the development of an air bubble agreement with India which was agreed upon in March.
Thanet Phetsuwan, the deputy governor for Asia and South Pacific with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) said since it began it had generated 600 arrivals from India per day.
The government agency is working with Thai Airways and its subsidiary Thai Smile with an estimate of 13,000 visitors a month and hopes that this may surge beyond 80,000 visitors per month after May.
‘India is an important market to offset the loss of Chinese tourists. It has a sizable population and a large number of passport holders,’ explained Mr Thanet.
The arrangement is also proving beneficial to Thai Airways which has increased its flight loads to between 60% and 65% so far in April with positive effects also on outbound international routes from Bangkok as Indian travellers opt to travel again to world destinations beyond Thailand such as Melbourne in Australia.
Prime Minister still committed to trying to balance competing needs of public health and the economy
Despite earlier gloomy remarks by the prime minister before the recent Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) meeting, officials are upbeat that within weeks of the Songkran holiday period, there will be further easing after the PM has reviewed the figures.
After the last meeting, General Prayut promised to pursue a balanced approach to what is still a key and difficult question for the government.
‘We will try our best to balance public health and the economy,’ the prime minister is reported as saying.
Pandemonium at Suvarnabhumi Airport this week as more arrivals push logistic arrangements to the limit
Meanwhile, the effects of the easing of restrictions were clear to see this week at Suvarnabhumi Airport where, from last weekend, there was pandemonium at certain hours at the airport which saw it attempting to process up to 2,000 incoming passengers per hour.
This was from 5 am to 7 am and from 12 noon to 3 pm as an increased number of flights with higher loads landed.
The confusion was addressed by the manager of the airport, Mr Kittipong Kittikachorn of Airports of Thailand (AOT) who said that his team was making new arrangements to handle up to 3,000 people per hour and pointed to stringent new normal public health requirements which the airport was strictly adhering to as being the reason for the problem combined with rising incoming traffic.
The key problem appeared to be at counters for incoming passengers where they are required to rendezvous with hotel operators under the still in place RT-PCR requirements which require one night’s overnight stay while the test results are processed.
Poised for takeoff providing a storm is not brewing
Mr Kittipong said that the 8 counters over the weekend had been increased to 17 this week and that a more efficient approach was being operated with hotels being displayed in alphabetical order.
Improvements had also been made with more baggage exits and customs checkpoints being introduced.
Last week, Mr Kittipong indicated that a further terminal may be reopened in due course as the country’s foreign tourism industry ramps up its thrust skywards.
This is long-awaited good news for Thailand and an opportunity for an uplift in the challenged economy provided another COVID-19 storm is not brewing as it was this time last year.