Thai tourism players on edge as Omicron fears stall travel sector

A tourist visiting Wat Phra Chetuphon in Bangkok on Nov 30, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK - Despite bringing Covid-19 infections under steady control and making headway in its vaccination roll-out, Thailand is once again on edge as the tourism sector frets over entry curbs that aim to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.

Since November, more than 350,000 vaccinated travellers have entered Thailand through its much-touted quarantine-free entry scheme that saw hints of revival in the battered tourism industry.

But application for entry under the scheme was suspended last week after Thailand detected its first case of local transmission of the Omicron variant, and the industry is once again in a state of flux after two months of brief respite.

"Some people thought the November reopening would bring in big numbers of tourists, but the reality is that the increase was not great," said the Association of Thai Travel Agents' (ATTA) head of public relations Pilomrat Isvarphornchai.

In 2019, almost 40 million foreign travellers visited Thailand and brought in revenue of 1.91 trillion baht (S$77.5 billion).

This year, the Tourism Authority of Thailand expects to earn around 600 billion baht from both foreign and domestic tourism, with the bulk coming from the 90 million domestic trips made.

In April, Thailand, which was waging a months-long battle against the Delta variant, imposed a night curfew and other strict movement and business restrictions to tackle what has been its deadliest wave of Covid-19 so far.

Now, the numbers of daily infections and deaths have stabilised. And with Covid-19 curbs gradually lifted since September, most businesses have resumed operations.

But the fallout has been irreversible for some.

After suffering losses of close to three million baht since the start of the pandemic, massage shop owner Nawaporn Yotthong, 45, decided in October to close her business in the heart of Bangkok.

"If I stayed open any longer, I will have nothing," said Ms Nawaporn who ran the shop for over a decade and has since returned to her hometown of Sakon Nakhon.

Similarly, about 50 per cent of ATTA's members, which include travel agents and tour companies, are closed, said Ms Pilomrat.

"Some have shut for good, others are waiting for the Chinese market to return. Those that are open are mainly serving the domestic market, but even then they're barely making any margins," she said.

Staff prepare the seating area as they open their bar up for the evening on Khao San Road in Bangkok on Nov 1, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

The emergence of the Omicron variant has resulted in a chaotic holiday season for travellers worldwide, with the new strain causing outbreaks in more than 100 countries including Thailand.

There are more than 900 Omicron cases in Thailand, with a major cluster of more than 200 infected in the north-eastern Kalasin province.

The Thai authorities are expected to review the Covid-19 situation and the quarantine-free entry scheme on Jan 4.

But the temporary suspension of the scheme has already created a "gap" where travellers are unable to plan flights or hotel bookings for the next few months, said Ms Marisa Sukosol Nunbhakdi, president of the Thai Hotels Association (THA).

"We cannot afford another lengthy pause in business right now. It's hurting us badly," she said.

Following November's tourism reopening, hotels in holiday destinations like Phuket, Hua Hin and Pattaya experienced an uptick in bookings.

A tourist lying on a beach bed in Phuket on Oct 26, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

"But with the recent announcement, dreams of achieving enough revenue to cover costs in the first quarter of 2022 were dashed," she added.

Additionally, a number of hotels that expected demand to grow in the next few months have hired more manpower, but the reduced tourist arrivals will make it hard to cover these additional costs, said Ms Marisa.

She added: "People are losing faith in the industry."

The authorities have warned that the New Year holiday, which typically sees a spike in domestic travel, could cause another Covid-19 wave.

The Public Health Ministry has predicted that there could be more than 30,000 new infections daily in the first quarter of 2022 if there is another big outbreak.

As a precaution, several New Year events across Thailand have been cancelled and the authorities have asked people to avoid travelling if possible.

After enjoying a brief two months of steady crowds and relatively brisk sales, Chatuchak Market merchant Thanyapat Kloytamwong, 50, is skittish about the Omicron variant.

Several studies have shown that it is more transmissible than the Delta variant, but most patients develop mild symptoms. Still, medical experts have cautioned that the Omicron variant could overwhelm healthcare systems.

"I worry that we could go into lockdown again," said Ms Thanyapat, who had turned to selling her wares online via live-streaming when Bangkok and other provinces were locked down in July this year.

Like many others, Ms Marisa is waiting in anticipation for the review of the situation on Jan 4.

"Hopefully they have good news. Something has to be done to save the hospitality industry before it collapses," she said.

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