Thailand opens three more regions to tourists despite Covid-19 spikes

Tourists visiting Maya Bay in Krabi, Thailand, on Jan 3, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG) - Thailand added three popular beach destinations to a visa programme that allows foreign visitors to bypass a mandatory isolation, throwing a lifeline to its Covid-19-hit tourism industry seen as key to a nascent economic recovery.

Starting Tuesday (Jan 11), vaccinated foreign tourists can enter Krabi, Phang Nga and Koh Samui in addition to Phuket under the so-called sandbox programme that will not require them to go through quarantine, provided they spend at least a week in these destinations.

The relaxed visa rule is yet another attempt by Thailand to restart its travel industry as the emergence of the Omicron variant triggers a new wave of Covid-19 infections.

The tourism-reliant nation indefinitely suspended a wider quarantine-free programme last week to quell a flare-up in new cases, though it helped attract some 350,000 travellers in just two months.

While the tourist arrivals under the sandbox programme are likely to be 50 per cent less in Samui, "it's still better than zero, still better than a total travel ban", said Mr Ratchaporn Poolsawadee, president of the Tourism Association of Koh Samui.

"The suspension came during the peak travel season so the impact on the sector is quite significant."

The faltering reopening strategy is set to weaken Thailand's growth outlook, as the tourism sector contributed almost a fifth to the nation's economy before the pandemic, with 40 million foreign tourists generating more than US$60 billion (S$81.24 billion) in 2019.

"The emergence of new variants and subsequent border controls, both in Thailand and elsewhere, poses a risk" to Thailand's tourist arrival estimates and growth, Ms Juliana Lee, an economist with Deutsche Bank, said in a report on Monday.

"It may take years for a full normalisation of global tourism, in fact. It will take time for tourists to gain confidence in travelling overseas - people will be loath to travel to faraway and unfamiliar places until they are confident about the efficacy of treatments."

The resort island of Phuket, which was the first Thai province to waive mandatory quarantine for immunised travellers from July 1, is currently grappling with its biggest surge in daily cases since the pandemic began, with about 60 per cent of its hospital beds occupied. But local officials have vowed to keep the programme going, saying the island's healthcare system can cope with the resurgence.

"The outbreak situation in Phuket is no different than many other countries. We're now adding capacity for travellers to isolate in hotel rooms," said Mr Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, president of the Phuket Tourist Association. "What Thailand did with the suspension and the adjustment showed that we were quick to make a call to limit the damage, and made changes as we learned more."

Covid-19 infections have been surging across Thailand after the New Year holiday and celebrations, and Omicron cases now account for the majority of new infections detected upon entry and among local clusters. On Tuesday, Thailand reported 7,133 new cases.

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