New variant could dampen Thailand’s reopening enthusiasm

Thailand was the first country in Asia to more fully reopen to foreign travellers, and it is seeing a slow recovery, with more bookings for hotels, and new faces along shopping strips and markets in the country. November 1 was the launch of the Thailand Pass and a broader reopening to fully vaccinated travellers and tourists from 63 low-risk countries.

But on one hand there is an excitement about the kickstart to the Thai economy, just in time for the traditional high season of traffic. But news from the past few days, about the new Covid variant Omicron, is now forcing Thai officials to ban traffic from 8 countries. There is likely to be more as some countries have also started banning additional destinations over the past 24 hours.

But Deputy PM, and Minister of Energy, Supattanapong Punmeechaow says the Thai government is “monitoring the situation” but is “not too worried because so far only 22 people have been found infected by this variant” in the world.

Regionally, Omicron infections have only been detected in 2 Hong Kong travellers.

The Minister claims “all public health measures, ranging from vaccination and medicines to medical equipment, are being prepared to deal with new infections”.

Thailand, battered by Covid-19 and border closures, due to its reliance on tourism as a major contributor to its GDP, will be keen to dodge any new Omicron bullets.

In sheer numbers, up to the end of October this year, Thailand saw 106,117 foreign ttravellers, a drop from 6.7 million in 2020 (most of those in the Q1). Before the Covid pandemic, in 2019, Thailand welcomed 39.6 million international arrivals.

Thailand’s nouveau voyageurs for 2021 are mostly from Europe, including Germany, UK, Scandinavian countries, then the US, Middle East, and Asia

Chief executive of Asset World Corporation, Wallapa Traisorat, says that domestic travel certainly helped.

“For November, we should see 30 percent occupancy, and in the fourth quarter we hope to see better momentum from the reopening.”

Thailand’s ever-optimistic Tourism Authority of Thailand has, again, downplayed its earlier enthusiastic prognostications and now expects only 200,000 foreign tourists for 2021. And 5 million in 2022, down from earlier predictions of 10, then 8 million.

But the new spectre of Omicron, a potentially more transmissible variant of Covid 19, could scupper Thailand’s best laid plans.

The pioneers of Thailand’s new Test & Go entry strategy, for fully vaccinated travellers doing a single night in quarantine waiting for their PCR results, has been moderately successful, but nothing like the government’s predictions.

Whilst Test & Go made getting back into Thailand a lot easier, foregoing lengthy stays in Alternative Quarantine hotels, the restrictions that still plague the country are putting off any real recovery, even if the world travellers were starting to flick through Thai travel brochures.

Bars will remain closed until January 16, 2022. But a loophole in the government’s ban on bars, perhaps intentional, allows restaurants to serve alcohol. This has spawned an entire industry of former bars converting into makeshift ‘restaurants’ where you can get a few chicken nuggets with a beer.

With some additional lighting, signage, and adherence to Covid precautions, the authorities have been reasonably tolerant towards Thailand’s bar and nightlife industry, trying to reboot their industry with their pop-up eating establishments

But other restrictions remain on opening hours, the wearing of masks in public and domestic flights requiring passengers to be fully vaccinated (in most cases). There’s also expensive Covid-19 insurance packages that have to be purchased before foreigners can re-enter Thailand. The appearance of a new “variant of concern” is likely to prolong these restrictions and delay any further immediate recovery in Thailand’s fraught tourism industry.

And then there’s the Thailand Pass, the digital version of the earlier Certificate of Entry, which had a really glitchy start but has steadily improved its efficiency. Anyone coming to Thailand at this time, Thais or foreigners, have to upload documentation, including pre-booked accommodation and vaccination certificates, before being sent a QR code which is used as they arrive and progress through immigration and health checks.

The response from travellers has been mixed with plenty madly Instagramming photos of pleasant, uncrowded tourist attractions, empty beaches and retail outlets keen to banter and haggle again.

But others have found the ‘new Thailand’ a bit quiet for their tastes and long for the bars and entertainment strips to reopen. Many say they’re confused with all the changes to the rules (additional changes were announced on Friday by the CCSA) and would prefer clearer guidelines before they arrive.

How the new Omicron variant pans out will inevitably affect Thailand, and the region’s, reopening to international travellers.

Looking for Covid insurance for the Thailand Pass? Click HERE.

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Tim Newton

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.