BANGKOK -- Thailand will welcome vaccinated foreign visitors nationwide without quarantine requirements starting in November, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said Monday, so that the kingdom can accommodate as many people as possible for the year-end holiday season.
"Today, I would like to announce the first small but important step in decisively beginning the process of trying to restore our livelihoods," the prime minister said in a televised address.
Thailand's COVID-19 policymaking administration and the Ministry of Public Health will consider how to handle the reopening this week upon Prayuth's request. This plan will need cabinet approval as well.
Fully vaccinated visitors must arrive by air from low-risk countries to be eligible for a quarantine-free stay in Thailand. They need to carry a negative RT-PCR test result before they leave their home country to show that they are COVID-free at the time of travel. They also must take another test upon arrival.
Prayuth said the reopening will start with allowing people from at least 10 countries regarded as low risk by Thailand. He named the U.K., Singapore, Germany, China and the U.S. as potential candidates. A source from Thailand's Foreign Ministry hinted that Japan likely would make the list, as it is an important trading partner for Southeast Asia's second-largest economy.
The list will be available by the end of October, reflecting the pandemic status in coming weeks. Thailand looks to expand the list on Dec. 1 and again Jan. 1. Visitors from countries outside the list will be able to visit Thailand but must undergo quarantine. Currently, seven days are mandatory for those arriving by air, with people coming by land or sea asked to quarantine for 10 days.
In June, Prayuth declared the entire country would reopen in 120 days. The November reopening will come with a slight delay to that plan. The country's reopening road map was disrupted after accepting vaccinated tourists with no quarantine at Phuket from July as a sandbox experiment, as outbreaks of the delta strain swept the country in mid-July.
Prayuth's administration was heavily criticized for its vaccine strategy. Many claimed that the vaccine shortage and slow rollout worsened the outbreaks and delayed the reopening.
Reviving tourism is crucial for the country's recovery. Tourism and related businesses accounted for 20% of Thailand's gross domestic product before the pandemic. The Thai economy shrank 6.1% in 2020 as visitors were banned. The Bank of Thailand expects the economy to grow 0.7% in 2021 and 3.9% in 2022, reflecting the gradual improvement in incoming tourists.
Thailand's inoculation rate is rising steadily, but it is unclear whether the public will have sufficient protection against COVID-19 before the November reopening. According to Our World in Data, 33% of the country's population was fully vaccinated as of Oct. 10, with 16.8% partially inoculated.
As it takes a few weeks for an individual to develop antibodies after receiving the vaccine, Thailand risks beginning the reopening with flawed protection against the coronavirus.
The prime minister insists the risk is worth taking.
"It is almost certain that we will see a temporary rise in serious cases as we relax these restrictions," Prayuth said. "I do not think that the many millions who depend on the income generated by the travel, leisure and entertainment sector can possibly afford the devastating blow of a second lost new year holiday period."
But foreign holidaymakers who look to enjoy parties instead of Thailand's other tourist attractions may not find the country as appealing as before. Thailand is under restrictive measures to contain the delta variant outbreaks. A curfew is in place from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. Restaurants are not allowed to serve alcoholic beverages. Pubs remain closed.
Prayuth said the government will consider allowing alcohol consumption in restaurants as well as the operation of entertainment venues, but such a change would come no sooner than Dec. 1.