Thailand expects to welcome hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers a month with the kick-off of a quarantine-free visa program that's set to serve as a model for tourism-reliant countries balancing safe border re-openings with economic revival.
Starting Tuesday, visitors of any nationality can apply for quarantine-free entry into Thailand, provided they are fully vaccinated. The government expects between 200,000 and 300 000 travellers to take advantage of the so-called Test & Go programme in February alone, with the numbers expected to swell in the following months.
The wider reopening – a previous quarantine-free programme was restricted to visitors from only about 60 countries – is part of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha's push to adopt a "living with the covid strategy" to rescue the pandemic-battered economy. About a fifth of gross domestic product before the virus came from tourism-related activities.
Thailand moved up 18 places in Bloomberg's latest covid resiliency ranking with its ramp-up in vaccinations and taming of the omicron-fuelled outbreak.
"It's a fine balance between tourism recovery and public health," said Marisa Sukosol Nunbhakdi, president of the Thai Hotels Association. "We have to create confidence among the Thai society as there's still a large group of people hesitant about foreign travellers. If other nations are still hesitant, they can come and look at the Thai Test & Go model."
Prayuth's government expects five million foreign visitors this year, with the majority of arrivals expected from Europe and the US, and the numbers may reach nine million if Chinese and Indian tourists return, according to spokesperson Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana.
The outlook will remain hazy for the next few months, especially in terms of attracting travellers from China, the biggest group of visitors to Thailand before covid, according to Tim Leelahaphan, a Bangkok-based economist at Standard Chartered Plc. Still, the reopening should help Thailand swing back to a current-account surplus of about 1.5% of GDP this year, although the level will be below the average before the pandemic, he said in a report.
Thailand has experimented with several plans over the past two years to revive the travel sector, which attracted 40 million foreign tourists and generated more than $60 billion (about R9.17 trillion) in 2019. About 350 000 visitors took advantage of the first phase of the Test & Go programme before it was suspended in late December to prevent the spread of the omicron variant.
"Thailand is among the world's top tourist destinations because of all the beautiful attractions and the value for money," said Burin Adulwattana, chief economist at Bangkok Bank Pcl. "But the government should try to instil confidence among travellers that the policies won't change again."