Thailand has reopened to fully vaccinated tourists, with tens of thousands of travellers expected to touch down in Bangkok and Phuket as the country reboots its tourism industry after 18 months of Covid restrictions.
The coronavirus pandemic has hammered the kingdom’s economy, with tourism making up almost 20% of its national income. Last year saw its worst performance since the 1997 Asian financial crisis with arrivals down more than 80%.
From 1 November, Thai authorities will allow vaccinated tourists from more than 60 “low-risk” countries to skip hotel quarantine – providing the sector a much-needed lifeline.
Previously, vaccinated tourists had to undergo at least seven days hotel quarantine.
Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport and Phuket’s international terminal will be the first to receive visitors under the relaxation, with the rest of the country following suit.
Thailand hopes to capitalise on travellers escaping the winter blues during December, with several European countries, the United States and China on the approved list.
“The most important thing that the government and I are thinking right now is to make people’s livelihoods return to normal,” premier Prayut Chan-O-Cha said on Friday.
Thailand typically attracts nearly 40 million visitors a year due to its picturesque beaches and lively nightlife. Tourism accounts for nearly a fifth of the economy and the impact of the pandemic has reverberated across various sectors, from restaurants to transportation.
Authorities expect 10 to 15 million visitors to return next year, with revenues forecast to surpass $30bn.
“In 2023, we believe the revenues will be close with the figure of the year 2019,” tourism minister Pipat Ratchakitprakarn said.
However, industry insiders are less optimistic, especially with regional giant China – the source of the lion’s share of tourists – still requiring returnees to undergo a strict quarantine programme.
Thailand is still registering about 10,000 Covid infections a day while only about 40% of the population have received two doses of a vaccine.
In Bangkok the double-dose vaccination rate is higher at close to 80%.
Beachside vendors in Phuket were itching for a higher influx on the eve of the re-opening.
Dit, 18, who works at his uncle’s sun lounge and juice bar on Kamala Beach, said their income was about $150 a day before the pandemic.
The business was forced to close for several months but re-opened three weeks ago and is now generating about $30 a day.
“We had to use our savings, grow vegetables and catch fish to survive,” Dit told Agence France-Presse.
“This (re-opening) will be better than the small sandbox tourist numbers, but we don’t expect all the deck chairs to be filled straight away.”
Further down the beach a trio of fire dancers wowed a dozen guests eating dinner at a hotel with a daredevil display of twirling and fire-breathing.
“We haven’t had much work. Not much money. I have a four-year-old son. It’s been a hard time,” one dancer said.
But in Koh Phi Phi – a popular island stop on the booze-fuelled backpacker trail – entrepreneurs were wary of a return to “business as usual”.
“Before it was the cheapest tourists in the world and all they wanted was sex, drugs and alcohol,” said Roger Andreu, who works at a dive shop.
“We need to make money but it cannot be the same.”
To travel to Thailand from 1 November, tourists will need to be fully vaccinated, test negative for Covid-19 before and after arrival, and spend their first night at a hotel that meets government requirements. They will also need to have Covid insurance cover of at least $50,000.