BANGKOK • Thailand is in talks with China to establish a quarantine-free travel corridor by January to rescue its ailing tourism industry.
The agreement with Beijing will be subject to the success of a limited reopening of the Thai tourism industry to foreign travellers this month, according to Tourism Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn.
China, which accounted for more than a quarter of Thailand's tourist arrivals before the pandemic, will be the first low-risk country the South-east Asian country will sign up for quarantine-free travel, he said.
The current mandatory quarantine will be replaced by coronavirus testing and a mobile tracking application for the Chinese visitors if the return of foreign tourists does not lead to fresh Covid-19 outbreaks, Mr Phiphat said. About 11 million Chinese holidaymakers visited Thailand last year, netting the country about US$17 billion (S$23.1 billion), official data shows.
Thailand has struggled in its efforts to reopen its borders to tourists due to opposition from a section of the local industry and concern among the public that the government is ill-prepared to deal with a second wave of infections.
But a pact with China may open the door to similar travel agreements with places such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, said Mr Phiphat.
"It can be a very happy new year as Thailand's travel high season is the perfect time to allow people into the country," Mr Phiphat said in an interview in Bangkok on Thursday.
"Most Chinese visitors come to Thailand for a week, so being quarantined would not be worth the trip for many."
The minister expects tourist arrivals to total five million to 10 million next year, compared with an estimated seven million this year.
While Thailand has weathered the virus outbreak better than most other South-east Asian nations, the pandemic has devastated its tourism industry, which netted more than US$60 billion in revenue from about 40 million visitors last year.
"China has about 800 million people in 22 provinces that have been free from infections," Mr Phiphat said. "If we can attract even just 1 per cent of those people to travel here, that would already be plenty."
The first group of visitors from China under a previously announced long-term tourist visa programme will arrive in Bangkok on Tuesday, the minister said.
The government expects to issue about 1,200 visas a month under the programme to help the industry that is reeling from no foreign tourist arrivals for five months in a row.
Thailand is also grappling with mounting anti-government pro-tests, prompting the authorities to impose a state of emergency in Bangkok on Thursday.
But that will not stop the government from easing visa curbs, Mr Phiphat said. "I am concerned, but I am confident that an understanding can be reached and it won't become violent," he said.