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Coronavirus

Thailand keeps doors open to Chinese tourists

Government confident of maintaining both public health and economic benefits

Tourists wear protective masks while posing for a photo at the Grand Palace amid coronavirus fears in Bangkok. Tourism is an important sector for Thai economy.    © AP

BANGKOK -- Amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, Thailand has not restricted Chinese tourists from entering the kingdom, or dropped its visa-on-arrival fee waiver implemented to mainly attract Chinese.

This is in clear contrast with concerned nations around the world. Singapore bans entry to all Chinese passport holders and foreigners with a recent history of travel to China. The U.S. decided to halt entry to the country of foreign nationals who had been to China within a 14-day incubation period. 

The Solomon Islands implemented regulations to restrict the entry of any person who had visited countries with confirmed cases of coronavirus, while Japan and South Korea have taken milder measures and blocked visitors from Hubei Province, the epicenter of the outbreak. 

"We are 100% in control of the situation," Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has been repeatedly saying to the public since the beginning of the outbreak. As of Sunday, Thailand had reported a total of 32 confirmed cases, among the most outside China. 

According to research by Johns Hopkins University, the kingdom is ranked sixth among 195 countries for the world's strongest health security, and the highest in Asia. 

Thai economy's high dependency on Chinese tourists is another reason to leave the door wide open. Some 10.99 million Chinese tourists visited Thailand in 2019, making the kingdom their favorite travel destination in the world. More than a quarter of total inbound arrivals were Chinese, and their spending is crucial for the Thai economy as tourism accounts for around 20% of its gross domestic product.

Beijing's ban on outbound tour groups is an even bigger blow for Thailand than Japan, which is Chinese people's second favorite. Roughly 60% of Chinese arrivals come to the second-largest economy in Southeast Asia on package tours, while the proportion drops to 40% for Japan. 

From Jan. 24-31, during the Lunar New Year, 143,000 Chinese tourists visited Thailand, down 200,000, or 58%, compared to the same season last year, causing an economic loss of 9.156 billion baht ($292 million).

Chinese tourists line up to buy masks at a shopping mall in Bangkok on Jan. 31.   © Reuters

Minister of Tourism and Sports Piphat Ratchakitprakarn estimated the economy will suffer 300 billion baht worth of damage even if the global epidemic is contained by March and business is back to normal by July. The severe impact made the Finance Ministry swiftly revise its economic growth forecast for 2020 down, from 3.3% to 2.8%. 

On maintaining the inflow, disagreements within the cabinet were apparent until the end of January. Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul urged the government to consider scrapping visas-on-arrival for Chinese. He suggested asking Chinese to provide certificates showing them to be virus-free upon entering Thailand.

Concerned voices were heard from the tourism industry as well. A restaurant in Chiang Mai posted signs that said Chinese were not welcome in Thai, Chinese and English. Tourist police asked the restaurant to remove the signs as they could be a threat to "national security." The restaurant replaced them with another sign that said "Sold Out" only in Chinese.

Such disagreements ended when the Bureau of the Royal Household released a telegram message sent from King Maha Vajiralongkorn to Chinese President Xi Jinping. "The world community cannot but be impressed with the thorough diligence and determination on the part of the Chinese authorities and with the comprehensive measures adopted to combat the scourge that is a grievous threat to us all," the king wrote. 

"We wish to reaffirm our solidarity with the people of China and wish you every success in overcoming this grave situation," the message continued. In Thailand, the king is the head of state and the country has lese-majeste law, so the meaning of King Vajiralongkorn's words often has to be interpreted. This time, they were taken as an order to leave the border open, while maintaining public health. Disagreements were rarely seen after the message became public.

"Keeping a good relationship with China is very important in the short and long term," said Sompop Manarungsan, dean of the Panyapiwat Institute of Management. Beijing uses its people's spending power as a diplomatic tool to influence other countries. Thailand hopes that leaving the border open now may not only ease the economic impact of the coronavirus but also lead to more Chinese arrivals in the future, further cementing its position as a Chinese favorite.

The strategy has worked so far. "China appreciated all the help, gestures of goodwill, and moral support the Thai government and Thais have given as it combats the coronavirus," said a Facebook post from the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok on Thursday. "Chinese authorities have attached importance to working with Thailand to deal with the spread of virus," it added.

Nevertheless, it is still too early to judge whether the calculated risk has paid off, as the situation surrounding the outbreak is full of uncertainties, including a potential cure.

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