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Thailand reopens borders for vaccinated tourists to boost economy

First quarantine-free flight arrives from Japan

BANGKOK -- Thailand started welcoming fully-vaccinated international visitors without requiring any quarantine period on Monday, taking a risk to loosen its border control so as to boost its ailing economy with tourist spending.

The first flight under the new quarantine-free program arrived at Bangkok's main air gateway Suvarnabhumi Airport from Tokyo just after midnight on Monday. The All Nippon Airways flight carried 27 passengers and 11 crew. Thai Airways International flights from Munich and Seoul came next.

According to Airports of Thailand, about 7,000 travelers from abroad were expected to arrive on Monday.

People traveling from 63 countries and territories are eligible for quarantine-free entry into Thailand. Taiwan, Mongolia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives, Kuwait, Oman, Romania, Slovakia, Croatia and Luxembourg were added by the Thai government on Saturday.

Incoming visitors must fulfill certain requirements to be able to roam Thailand quarantine-free. Travelers must have spent 21 days or more in the approved countries and territories, and they must arrive by air. They also have to carry a certificate of full vaccination, a negative COVID-19 test result, and insurance with coverage no less than $50,000.

As Thailand's airports will be busy with a constant inflow of tourists, the visitors will not be able to wait for the COVID-19 test result required upon arrival. They are asked to reserve an overnight stay at a hotel with high hygiene standards certified by the Thai government at their own expense, to wait for the result. Once they are certified negative they will be allowed to travel around Thailand.

"I am glad the situation has improved enough to enjoy quarantine-free travel," one traveler said with a big smile. She was on a flight from Helsinki, which touched down Monday morning. "The immigration clearance was all well-managed. I am looking forward to visiting a beach in Hua Hin," the 63-year-old added. Hua Hin is a seaside getaway about 150km southwest of Bangkok. The resort has traditionally been used as the summertime retreat of Thailand's royal family.

International passengers arrive at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok on Nov. 1. (Photo by Marimi Kishimoto)

The last-minute addition to the country list displays Thailand's desperation to revive tourism, as it and its related businesses once accounted for 20% of the country's gross domestic product.

When Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha announced his intention of reopening on Oct. 11 via a televised address, he described it as "the first small but important step in decisively beginning the process of trying to restore our livelihoods."

The eligible countries are selected "for the benefit of the economy in conjunction with public health security measures," according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Most of the top 20 countries from which Thailand earned tourism receipts in 2019 were included on the list, except for Russia, which has been experiencing a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases. The 19 countries recorded roughly 80% of Thailand's total tourism receipts in 2019.

Due to the lack of visitors, Southeast Asia's second largest economy shrank 6.1% in 2020. In September, the Bank of Thailand projected 0.7% growth in 2021 as the central bank expected 200,000 incoming tourists for the year. The Tourism Authority of Thailand has a bold target of welcoming 300,000 travelers in both November and December.

But the streets of Thailand may look less attractive for some visitors -- especially those seeking parties. On Friday, the Thai government gave a green light to lifting a ban on public drinking in the tourist destinations of Bangkok, Phuket, Krabi and Pang-nga. But the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration decided to only allow public alcohol consumption until 9 p.m. at restaurants that follow strict hygiene standards. Pubs, bars, Karaoke clubs and other nightlife entertainment spots remain shuttered in the capital.

Opening up the borders for tourism spending may come with a price, as it could make the kingdom more vulnerable to imported cases and new variants from abroad. "It is almost certain that we will see a temporary rise in serious cases as we relax these restrictions," Prayuth said in the televised address.

Comparing the seven-day rolling average of confirmed COVID-19 cases per million people, 30 of 63 countries and territories on the list were under a more severe epidemic situation than Thailand as of Saturday, according to Our World in Data.

Incoming travelers should be reminded that Thailand is nowhere close to COVID-free. The country reported 8,165 new cases on Monday.

The grand reopening was initiated and realized in haste. The original list of 45 countries and a territory that are eligible for quarantine-free entrance was released on Oct. 22.

For some visitors, the rush did not allow enough time to travel. "First, I was not sure if Japan was going to be included in the list. Once the list was announced, I was not certain if I could prepare all the necessary documents in less than 10 days," said a 33-year-old Japanese female.

She has been working in Thailand for the past three years as an expat in the telecommunications industry. She returned to Japan in late September to get fully vaccinated under the Japanese health care system, and was waiting to come back to Bangkok. Her original flight was on Monday, but she ended up rescheduling it for next Saturday.

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