Growing Covid-19 outbreak in Thailand may threaten Phuket reopening

Thailand is already planning to reopen Phuket from July. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - A growing outbreak in Thailand, where local Covid-19 cases hit a new daily record on Sunday (April 11), threatens to undermine the nation's plan to welcome back tourists.

Of the infections, 964 were domestic transmissions, including 236 in the capital Bangkok, the epicentre of an outbreak that has spread to most of Thailand's 77 provinces.

Cases have spiked every so often since the start of the year, and the latest figures suggest that the coronavirus spread has yet to be contained in the South-east Asian nation. This could jeopardise the tourism-reliant country's efforts to boost the local travel industry.

Authorities have urged people to avoid unnecessary travel and reduce gatherings to help limit the outbreak, which includes the highly transmissible B.1.1.7 variant first identified in Britain.

"Right now, the situation is worrying. But we can manage it if everyone helps," senior health official Sopon Iamsirithaworn told a briefing.

Thailand is already planning to reopen Phuket from July and waiving quarantine for vaccinated tourists heading there. It's using the resort island as a testing ground before expanding similar measures to other tourist hotspots such as Koh Samui.

At least 38 provinces have required visitors from risk areas to undertake a 14-day quarantine. Nightspots such as pubs and karaoke bars in Bangkok and 40 provinces will be closed until April 23.

"The outbreak is worrying and could derail Thailand's plans" to resume tourism activities more widely, said Jeremy Lim, director of the Leadership Institute for Global Health Transformation at the National University of Singapore. "From a public health perspective, it would be a disaster for the world if Thailand pushes through its plans regardless of the ground situation, and Thailand becomes a super spreader site."

The managers of two entertainment venues in Bangkok, where many infections were reported, had been sentenced to two months in jail for Covid-19 violations, police said on Sunday.

As part of its tourism efforts, it has already approved a list of eight Covid-19 vaccine makers, including Sinovac Biotech and Pfizer, for foreign visitors seeking to shorten a mandatory quarantine on arrival.

Tourism has never been more important to Thailand. It's betting on a return of overseas visitors to rescue the country from its worst economic performance in more than two decades.

Tourism contributed to a fifth of its economy before the pandemic. Foreign tourist arrivals into Thailand plunged to the lowest level in at least 12 years after the country closed its borders.

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