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Thai tourism reopening hits roadblock due to slow vaccine rollout

October or November? Government sends mixed messages on resuming travel to Bangkok

The southern Thai resort island of Phuket welcomed 29,654 vaccinated travelers with no quarantine over a period of 10 weeks after reopening on July 1.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- The pace of Thailand's tourism reopening will slacken as the government reworks its plans due to the country's slow vaccine rollout.

The delay will allow Southeast Asia's second-largest economy to better prepare for welcoming tourists, but will also reduce the tourism industry's opportunities to secure fast cash.

"International tourists are expected to enter without quarantine from January, led by travel bubbles with surrounding countries starting on Jan. 15," said Tourism and Sports Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn.

The time frame given by the minister suggests a delay of over a month in the country's reopening schedule. In June, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha launched a 120-day plan to start allowing vaccinated foreigners to roam freely around Thai soil without any quarantine requirements. The four-month period will expire in mid-October.

The reopening of Bangkok appears to be wavering. Phiphat has said that the reopening of the capital to vaccinated travelers will be postponed from October to November, as not enough residents will be fully vaccinated until the end of next month. "The plan for Bangkok is more challenging, as it has extended territory covering vicinities that require more elaborate standard operation procedures," he said.

However, Prime Minister's Office Secretary-General Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana posted on Facebook on Thursday that the capital is still among the five provinces that are set to reopen in October. The other four are Chiang Mai, Chonburi, Petchaburi and Prachuap Khiri Khan.

Bangkok's reopening is a key step toward nationwide reopening, as it will provide data on visitors' activities and spending that is vital in judging how safe and economically effective it will be for the country to fully welcome tourists.

Thailand's government partially lifted its lockdown on Sept. 1, reopening malls and beauty parlors as well as allowing dine-in services and resuming interprovincial travel.   © AP

The delayed national reopening will give Thais more time to adapt to the country's new normal. From September, the government has lifted business lockdowns that were imposed to contain the delta-strain outbreaks in certain provinces, including Bangkok.

The easing of restrictions came not because the epidemic has been curbed -- the country reported 16,031 new cases on Thursday, jumping from 14,176 the previous day. Instead, it reflects the country's shift in its COVID-19 policies. Instead of eradicating the virus completely, the government now aims to coexist with it.

From October, residents in provinces with high epidemic levels who want to use high-risk facilities such as restaurants, hair salons and spas will be asked to provide a certificate of full vaccination or a negative antigen test result. 

These new-normal measures have prompted Thais who were hesitant over vaccination to finally get a shot. Many had been skeptical of the efficacy and safety of the Sinovac and AstraZeneca vaccines, the main sources of inoculation for the kingdom. With supply meeting demand, the proportion of fully vaccinated people jumped to 15% by Sept. 7 from 10.3% on Aug. 27, the day the lockdown easing was announced.

The easing is part of the government's efforts to revive tourist attractions before welcoming tourists. Some restaurants have gone out of businesses due to measures that prevented people from dining in, and many others barely survived.

The removal of restrictions and subsequent reopening will provide breathing space for businesses to work out operations that are safe and economically sustainable under the new normal ahead of the arrival of tourists from abroad.

The July 1 reopening of the southern island of Phuket provides a success story -- and a cautionary tale. Between July 1 and Sept. 8, the resort island welcomed 29,654 vaccinated international travelers with no quarantine period, up from virtually zero in 2020 due to coronavirus-induced border closures.

But this "sandbox experiment" is in danger as delta-strain outbreaks penetrate the island. Phuket Province reported 219 cases on Wednesday. "That the number of infections is more than 200 a day is a crisis situation," said Phuket Gov. Narong Woonciew. Cases surged despite the fact that 70% of the island residents were fully inoculated ahead of the reopening.

When the early reopening program was launched, the government had prepared contingencies to delay or cancel the experiment if authorities found 90 confirmed new cases per week, transmission across three districts and six subdistricts, or a spate of untraceable superspreaders. A halt would also be triggered if an uncontrollable superspreader situation resulted in 80% or more of the island's hospital beds being occupied. However, having a level of over 200 daily cases had not yet stopped the experiment as of Thursday.

"The Phuket sandbox is a pilot program and a pivotal first step that lays the foundation for the rest of the country," hospitality giant Minor International's chairman, William Heinecke, told local media. "The failure of the sandbox would be a stain on Thailand's global image. Therefore, we must go above and beyond to safeguard the program and ensure its success," he insisted.

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