News analysis

Thailand grapples with wary public in trying to reopen borders amid Covid-19 pandemic

The Thai government is trying instead to entice high-spending tourists with a long-stay visa plan. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BANGKOK - Bangkok karaoke bar manager Thitikorn Rattanarak had to pull part-time shifts at her local 7-Eleven store when Thailand ordered nightspots shut earlier this year to contain the coronavirus pandemic. When bars reopened, border restrictions continued to shut out most of her patrons, who are Japanese.

Yet she hesitates when asked if Thailand should open its door wider to foreign arrivals. "Maybe next year," she tells The Straits Times. "It's okay. It's just another three to four months."

Governments struggling to battle both the medical crisis and economic disaster are also grappling with the power of public sentiment.

In Thailand, local fears about a second Covid-19 wave scuttled the government's so-called "Safe and Sealed" proposal to restart the Kingdom's battered tourism industry by isolating fresh visitors in a 1km zone around designated resorts. The idea was to let sun seekers spend their 14-day quarantine on a beach in Phuket, where the scheme would first be launched.

But people in Phuket shot it down. Although heavily reliant on tourist dollars, they are still scarred by the first Covid-19 outbreak, when the province logged the highest number of infections outside of Bangkok.

"We learnt a lesson. (During the first wave,) when people learnt you came from Phuket, they were reluctant to talk to you," Phuket Tourist Association president Bhummikitti Ruktaengam told The Straits Times. "People from other provinces would not welcome Phuket people if we allowed international visitors in quarantine to move around in the 'safe' area and mix with locals."

Today, the Thai government is trying instead to entice high-spending tourists with a long-stay visa plan that would allow them to stay up to 270 days while also not budging from the 14-day quarantine requirement. If that takes off, it would put Phuket ahead of Bali, a rival tourist hot spot in Indonesia which has not reopened to foreign visitors despite earlier plans to do so.

Thailand has gone for four weeks without local transmission, but its economy is projected by the World Bank to shrink at least 8.3 per cent this year, making it the worst performer in the region.

It is wrestling with the question of when and how to open its borders. So sensitive is this subject that when Tourism minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn recently mooted the idea of halving the quarantine period to seven days, other government officials were quick to also say that was not being considered at this stage.

Mr Supant Mongkolsuthree, chairman of the Federation of Thailand Industries, blames the wary public sentiment on government communication.

"What's crucial is communicating the positive aspects, like numbers of visitors who have arrived without problem," he told The Straits Times. "So far, we have focused mostly on negative information, like numbers of patients and the impact on the economy,"

Locals worry that a second wave could put Thailand in a lockdown it may never recover economically from. But nearby Vietnam has shown that a resurgence can be managed successfully.

Life is almost back to normal in the coastal city of Danang, the epicentre of a second wave responsible for the bulk of the nation's infections and which left 35 patients dead. Vietnam logged 1,096 cases as of Friday evening (Oct 2).

Like Thailand, Vietnam has gone for four weeks without new community transmission. While it has not reopened the door to international tourists, it has restarted international commercial flights, and exempted from quarantine select groups of foreign experts and investors coming for short visits if they follow strict health measures.

Despite the hit Vietnam has taken from the global slowdown, its economy is showing enough resilience to make it the brightest spot in South-east Asia. The government says its gross domestic product grew 2.12 per cent from January to September compared with the same period last year. The World Bank expects Vietnam's economy to post a full-year growth of 2.8 per cent, and steam ahead to 6.8 per cent next year.

Learning from its experience in the first outbreak, when a nationwide lockdown battered the economy, Hanoi responded to the second wave by isolating Danang and letting business in other regions proceed as normally as possible, noted Dr Huynh The Du, public policy lecturer at Fulbright University Vietnam. This helped it bounce back faster.

Meanwhile, Vietnamese were less fearful during the second wave because the government had contained the first effectively, said Dr Le Thai Ha, a research director at Fulbright University Vietnam.

"When we trust the government, we feel more confident to go out, we are more ready to spend and businesses are ready to invest," she said.

Thailand, like Vietnam, has the capacity to bounce back from a second wave, says Dr Birgit Hansl, the World Bank's country manager in Thailand.

"It has experience successfully containing the epidemic. If the second wave hits, it could again successfully contain it and not risk extensive measures of lockdown that actually then have a stronger economic impact," she said.

The bigger question is how it can convince people of the calculated risks that need to be taken to reopen borders and jump-start the economy.

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