Hard truths about travelling to Thailand, right now


Just a year ago, you could book a flight, booked a hotel, and in many cases, just arrived to receive a visa-on-arrival stamp in your passport. A few hours later you were sitting on a beach sipping colourful drinks out of tall glasses. Just one year later and being a tourist in Thailand is very difficult, if not impossible for most.

At this stage it is a mind-numbing challenge to come to Thailand unless you have very deep pockets, an urgent need, or fall into a smattering of categories currently allowed by the Thai government. Even if all that applies to you, there is an almost endless number of hoops you will have to jump through to be approved for travel to Thailand right now.

Currently, as of the start of October, the government only recognises certain visa types to re-enter the country. But, as the evidence shows, even if you are eligible in theory, there are limited entries of people allowed back into the country. For example, the holders of Thailand Elite visas have been ‘officially’ able to re-enter the country since the start of August. But in practice, according to a source at Thailand Elite, not more than 50 people have actually successfully returned up to date.

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Around the world, the information from Thai embassies has also been ‘lumpy’ with different officials, in different countries, providing conflicting information about the same visa products.

But the sticking point, with just about every visa, is the mandatory 14 day quarantine period at a state approved facility. This includes government approved hotels as well, but these hotel quarantines (ASQs) come at a high cost. And of course, you’re cooped up in a room with little access to outside activities during that time.

Even the newly launched Special Tourist Visa is very special indeed. Applicants require plenty of cash and have to have the intention coming for at least 90 days, with the option of staying for up to 270 in total. But when you add the compulsory health insurance, only provided by Thai companies, doing all your bookings through the government’s private travel company Thailand Long Stay, flying on specially chartered flights, etc etc, the costs start to stack up. And you haven’t even bought a beer or had a massage at this stage!

To call this ‘tourism’ is a misnomer. The dribble of high spenders, people prepared to fill out all the paperwork and pay for the pleasure of coming to Thailand, will do nothing for Thailand’s broader tourism industry and re-open the 1000s of shuttered hotels. 1000s of other businesses, connected to the Thai tourism juggernaut, remain in tatters.

Even if you’re a tourist, with the best intentions to visit ‘safe’ Thailand’, officially free of Covid-19, what precisely are you going to do here? If your intention is to head out on an island tour, hit the red light districts or choose from a spectacular list of hotels, you’re probably going to be a little disappointed. There are few tours running right now, the red light districts – at least in Phuket, Samui and Pattaya – are not very ‘red’, and many hotels, again in the popular tourist zones, remain shut. Ok there’s still plenty to do and you’ll probably be able to get some great bargains with eager hotels and taxi drivers. But the ‘Thailand’ you were probably expecting is not currently operating.

For now there’s a world of difference between the ‘almost back to normal’ areas and the ‘almost deserted’ locations around the country. Bangkok, in all but the really touristy areas, is pretty much back to its chaotic, busy self. Even Pattaya is having bursts of activity on the weekends but the weekdays are tough for the popular ‘sin-city’. Chiang Mai tourism is doing it particularly tough right now with a smattering of domestic tourism doing little to keep the northern city alive. Phuket’s west coast beach towns are almost completely bereft of people. Businesses in Koh Samui are facing extinction. Hua Hin is surviving on a trickle of weekend traffic from Bangkok.

Some of the places you’d really like to visit may be inaccessible for now, or not even open.

At some stage, hopefully sooner rather than later, the Thai government will have to re-open its borders and find a way to ‘manage’ the Covid-19 situation rather than remain in a travel bubble of its own making. The longer the government doesn’t re-open to something akin to general tourism, the harder it will be to re-boot the former Thai tourism powerhouse.

You would think with a compulsory wearing of face masks, some diligent respect for social distancing and constant reminders of good hygeine and hand washing, most of the risk factors for Covid-19 can be mitigated. Testing before travel and upon arrival also provides an extra level of defence. There are well established ways to avoid a virus beyond the blunt tool of simply closing borders.

Sure locals, who have been living inside this Siamese Bubble for 6 or so months, will also have to manage their own prevention with potential new cases coming into the country. The recent complacency will have to be replaced with a new vigilance.

The mandatory 14 day quarantine, clearly a major sticking point for many travellers, has been cobbled together to appear as little more than a money-making exercise for a select group of wealthy hoteliers, rather than a well-grounded public health policy. Appointing a government-owned private company as the intermediary for travel arrangements also smacks of turning Covid travel into a profit centre for a single business entity. The 10 room guesthouse in Patong and the bike tour company in Chiang Mai are making nothing from this exercise.

The two reoccurring themes behind every announcement about possible re-openings are “fear” of a new wave of Covid-19 and “we’re just waiting for a vaccine”.

Whilst the Thai government’s success in containing Covid-19 relatively early is something to be proud of, it has been replaced with an irrational fear to develop a useful, science-based plan to re-open the borders.

And while the hopes for a Covid-19 vaccine are shared by millions, the history of successful coronavirus vaccines is not good. In fact there has never been a workable vaccine for any of the five other coronaviruses. The urgency and clear need for a vaccine for Covid-19 has forced scientists to fast-track their development and testing, and clinical trials are currently underway. But, even if they work they will only be partially successful and many people simply won’t get the vaccine, either through choice, poorly-informed fears or lack of access. So waiting for a vaccine could be a LONG wait… it simply may never happen.

Thailand’s travel and hospitality industries, and they ARE industries, are in a perpetual limbo. Whilst everyone is happy to see a development like the Special Tourist Visa, it is not even a remotely sustainable model for Thailand’s tourism industry beyond the immediate short-term.

It’s time to replace fear with professional management of this inconvenient virus.

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