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Countdown to February 1 – opening Thailand’s tourist floodgates?

Tim Newton

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The Test & Go program of the Thailand Pass is set to start again on February 1. Test & Go Version 2.0.

In this reboot you will need to book an extra pre-paid SHA+ room, and PCR test, for Day 5 of your stay, in addition to the original version of Test & Go when you only had the one test and room booking on Day 1.

Since December 22, when the original Test & Go program was shelved, the Sandboxes have filled the arrival void, with 7 days of SHA+ prepaid hotel bookings in a designated province or region – roam around during the day then check back at your SHA+ hotel overnight.

Since the end of December, arrival numbers to Thailand have stumbled. Clearly the original Test & Go was the most palatable entry program and fuelled a short, sharp burst of arrivals into Thailand in November and December, mostly benefiting the southern island of Phuket.

Now the big question is if the new, slightly more onerous, version of Test & Go is going to re-ignite the battered Thai tourism industry. There will still be thousands of people who need to return to Thailand, for business or family commitments. But will the tourists start surging through the immigration turnstiles? And where will they come from?

Risk-averse Thailand may be late to the table.

The Philippines plans on reopening to some fully vaccinated tourists on February 10. Travellers from most countries will finally be allowed to enter the south east Asian tourism competitor, after plans to reopen on December 1 were scrapped due to the spread of the Omicron variant.

The announcement to reopen Philippines will allow fully vaccinated travellers from 157 countries who were previously permitted to enter the country without a visa before the pandemic, to resume travel to the Philippines from February 10. The Philippines reopening plan does not involve any sort of quarantine and only requires a recent negative Covid-19 test before travelling to the country.

Next door to Thailand, a campaign named “Cambodia: Safe and Green Tourism Destination” was launched on Thursday. All fully-vaccinated tourists are welcome to Cambodia without quarantine.

Singapore says it will continue to limit the number of travellers who can enter the island nation through its quarantine-free, vaccinated travel lane arrangement.

But some restrictions are easing. Travellers who enter Singapore after January 24, through the vaccinated travel lane flights, can do “unsupervised, self-administered rapid Covid tests” for 7 days after arrival if they intend to leave their place of residence. And they don’t even have to do any official submission of those results.

Further south and Indonesia’s beach paradise, Bali, has had an anticlimactic relaunch of international tourism since a program was launched in October 2021. Indeed, in the first three months of the ‘reopening’, not one commercial international flight landed at Bali’s Ngurah Rai Airport.

Before October last year, the island only saw 45 international tourists arriving in the first 10 months of 2021.

There’s no doubt Thailand, with more to lose in regards to tourism prestige than its neighbours, has tried harder and launched more campaigns and ‘schemes’ than any of its competitors.

Local Thai tourist industry pundits are hailing alleged “pent up demand” as a sure-fire bet that packed planes with eager spending tourists will be flocking to Thailand post February 1 but, internationally, the tourists are simply not piling onto planes like they used to, pre-2020. And the indications of world post-Covid economic woes are going to threaten any immediate recovery in the world travel market.

Simply, flights to Thailand at this time, even after February 1, are a small proportion of the flight options available in pre-Covid days.

Meanwhile, online sentiment and chatter has not been favourable to Thailand and its best intentions to throw open the tourist floodgates. The announcement of Test & Go Version 2 earlier this month was met with a resounding thumbs down, where commenters, almost universally, said that the additional Day 5 accommodation and PCR test was just too restrictive.

The general sentiment was, as the rest of the world was opening up with fewer restrictions, Thailand was doubling down and just making it more difficult and more expensive to return to the Kingdom.

Added to the additional hurdles were the hundreds of stories surfacing of travellers, testing positive in Thailand, and being carted off to quarantine where they were forced to stay for up to 10 days, usually at their cost. This fuelled speculation that there was, occasional, collusion between hotels and partnering hospitals to ‘fudge’ test results in a way to extract further baht out of the hapless travellers. Whilst there are court cases in motion over some of these incidents, Thai authorities stress that these incidents are extremely rare.

But none of this negative commentary was going to stop the ever-optimistic Tourism Authority of Thailand, and the Tourism and Sports Minister, from making wild predictions about tourist arrivals for 2022. Earlier this month a figure of up to 15 million arrivals in 2022 was touted. That’s variously been revised down to 5 – 10 million since then.

So how open is Thailand, even after the launch of Test & Go Version 2 next week?

Bars and nightlife are still, officially, closed. A loophole allowing bars-converted-to-restaurants to reopen and serve alcohol until 11pm has given thirsty patrons a place to have an evening tipple, but it’s a pale shade of Thailand’s former nightlife glory. And that’s only in, mostly tourist-friendly, Blue Zones. The CCSA, who administer Thailand’s Covid response, will meet again next week to review the current zonings and restrictions.

Face masks are still mandatory in public areas. Although most Thais and local expats don’t seem to have much of a problem with the mandate, a coterie of potential travellers say they won’t return until the mask wearing rules are lifted.

And, to be clear, the Thailand tourists may want to visit is a very different experience in the early months of 2022, compared with the same time 2 years ago. Many of the tourist zones have been, and not exaggerating, ravaged by the lack of tourist money. Walking around Pattaya, Phuket, party and tourist zones in Bangkok, and just about any island in Thailand, you will see a large proportion of the former businesses still closed.

But, on the bright side, early adopters of Test & Go Version 2 will get a glimpse of Thailand without having to compete for space at the country’s most popular attractions. The beaches are clean and clear, a walk around the Grand Palace without the crowds, markets where the traders are happy and eager to bargain with you again.

Even a visit to Krabi’s Maya Bay is a new and unique experience, more like the deserted postcard Thai beach we saw in the 2000 movie “The Beach” than the 5,000-visitors-per-day who crowded the tourist trap pre-2020.

Despite the TAT’s grand predictions for tourist traffic in 2022, we will all know soon enough whether Test & Go Version 2 is going to light up the imaginations of travellers as we start to emerge into a new post-Covid travel paradigm.

You can visit the Thailand Pass website HERE. There is NO cost to register for a Thailand Pass, including the Test & Go, Sandbox and Alternative Quarantine programs.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________

If you are fully vaccinated and looking to travel to Thailand, you may enter by a 1 Day Test & Go or 5 Day Test & Go packages.

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    Tim Newton has lived in Thailand since 2011. An Australian, he has worked in the media, principally radio and TV, for 42 years. He has won the Deutsche Welle Award for best radio talk program (public radio Australia), presented over 11,000 radio news bulletins, 3,950 in Thailand alone, hosted 1050 daily TV news programs and produced 2,100 videos, TV commercials and documentaries. He also reported for CNN, Deutsche Welle TV, CBC, Australia's ABC TV and Australian radio during the 2018 Cave Rescue and other major stories in Thailand. As founder of The Thaiger in 2016, Tim is the current English Content Manager for the company, based in their Bangkok HQ.

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