Thai tourism rebound will lag other hot spots, hotel tycoon says

Tourists visiting Maya Bay after Thailand reopened its world-famous beach, on Jan 3, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG) - American-born Thai businessman Bill Heinecke spoke out against Thailand's border reopening, saying the South-east Asian nation should look to less-conservative policies that have been implemented in parts of Europe and travel hot spots such as the Maldives as models to follow to revive its tourism industry.

"If you're vaccinated and tested you must be allowed to travel without so much paperwork," said Mr Heinecke, the founder and chairman of Minor International, one of Asia's largest hospitality, restaurant and lifestyle companies.

Tourism numbers in Thailand are "going to be tough and challenging for a while until the government changes its position."

While Thailand this month resumed quarantine-free tourism for vaccinated travellers, Mr Heinecke labelled the requirements - multiple Covid-19 tests, the need to use an online check-in registration system and having an insurance policy with at least US$50,000 (S$67,287) cover - as "cumbersome".

"The United States remained open through all this period pretty much and Europe has also handled it pretty well," he said. "These are the bright spots - we don't see difficulties or roadblocks stopping tourism from the rest of the world."

Thailand was hit with its worst outbreak between July and September last year, thwarting its plans to ease border controls. The spread of the Omicron variant had also led to a pause on the so-called Test & Go programme, which was introduced in the fourth quarter as vaccination rates improved. It was resumed in February with added requirements.

Minor, which operates more than 520 hotels and resorts in 56 countries and over 2,300 casual dining and quick-service restaurants, reported a 435.6 million baht (S$17.8 million) loss in the third quarter ended Sept 30, an improvement on a 5.6 billion baht deficit in the same period of 2020. It was driven by a rebound of its hotel business in Europe and the Maldives, and the recovery in those markets is expected to have continued in the fourth quarter.

Most of Minor's business in Europe is through NH Hotel Group SA, which it acquired in 2018. The region contributed 79 per cent to the company's overall hotel business revenue, versus just 3% for Thailand, Minor's home base.

Mr Heinecke said countries in Europe, as well as island destinations such as the Maldives and popular stopover cities like Dubai, will see a stronger tourism rebound because of their governments' more liberal approach to reopening after the pandemic, which is entering its third year and saw international travel all but cease in early 2020.

"When you look at a place like the Maldives, China was the biggest supplier of tourists," he said. "Today it's setting new pre-Covid-19 highs and they're doing that without the Chinese. Dubai is also seeing higher hotel rates. These are the places you should look at."

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