How will Thailand bring back international tourists?

Thailand is not yet ready for international tourists or medical tourists, and is considering the risk of welcoming vaccinated ones. Ian Youngman looks at the latest plans for Thailand to open up safely.

Thailand is one of the world’s most popular international destinations, with a record 40 million visitors in 2019. COVID-19 caused those numbers to plummet to just 6.8 million international arrivals in 2020. Worse yet, the current predictions for Thai tourism only foresee 10 million international visitors in 2021.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has published plans to bring back international tourists by the third quarter and aims to start selling tour packages in April.

TAT also announced that the country will begin to allow vaccinated tourists with a shorter quarantine and may even waive it entirely. Thailand’s new “Welcome back to Thailand again” campaign might include COVID passports, to identify those lower-risk foreign visitors who could be allowed in without testing or quarantine. The government is looking to have a vaccine passport policy plan in place by June.

The Welcome Back to Thailand Again campaign isn’t set to launch until July 2021 at the earliest and is dependent on worldwide progress on vaccinations.

The counter argument to allowing in vaccinated travellers is that it is thought that these individuals can still pass the virus on, which in a poor country with low local vaccination rates could be a dangerous risk that the military government is not prepared to take.

Mandatory app for tourists

Thailand has launched a new mandatory app for tourists, ThailandPlus, that will track users’ movements and offer real time Covid-19 advice. The app was developed to help the Thai government with contact tracing efforts and inform tourists if they have come into contact with someone who has Covid-19. The new app will be mandatory for all tourists and must be downloaded and installed before a traveller arrives in Thailand. QR codes will be displayed in businesses including accommodation, restaurants, shopping centres and tourism attractions, and tourists will be required to use them to check in and out.

Opening Thailand Safely – 1 July?

The Open Thailand Safely campaign was launched on 2 March with the support of over 15 major Bangkok-based private sector travel companies including YAANA Ventures, Minor Group, Asian Trails, Capella Hotels and Resorts, EXO and many others.

It sees a 1 July reopening as a strategic opportunity for Thailand to show a leadership role among Asian countries and prepare the way for a solid recovery of the Thai economy in 2022.

The campaign argues that 1 July is an appropriate date for five reasons:

  • The majority of citizens in many source markets will have been vaccinated by then.
  • It gives time to Thai medical authorities to vaccinate both front line staff in hospitality settings in Thailand and/or vulnerable citizens around the country.
  • It gives international travellers time to make travel plans and bookings.
  • The date gives time to airlines, hotels, tour operators and others to start marketing and get ready for tourism operations to commence.
  • It will take Thailand at least a year, and maybe longer, to return to the large numbers of international visitors that it had before the COVID-19 crisis.

To ensure the safe reopening of Thailand, the campaign argues that international tourists can be asked to satisfy any safeguards the Thai government may require. This may include showing officially recognised proof of a COVID-19 vaccination from their home country, purchasing health insurance, and showing proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of departure.

Potential for inbound medical travel to Thailand

Medical tourists are allowed in, following strict extra rules and conditions that add substantially to cost, taking away Thailand’s main competitive advantage of lower costs. International patients still have to comply with quarantine and multiple tests, but they can quarantine in hospital.

Exactly how many medical tourists Thailand receives in normal times has always been confusing due to multiple conflicting information sources and counting multiple visits by the same patient within figures.

But even using a conservative figure of 0.5 million puts Thailand near the top for destination numbers. How many medical tourists it can get back for 2021 is dependent on when borders open. But if the ratio of medical tourists to actual tourists is as in 2019 then it will be lucky to get 100,000 medical tourists.