Thailand plans travel bubble talks with China to boost tourism

Thailand is chasing bilateral deals to spark a broader recovery in its pandemic-battered tourism industry. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG) - Thailand plans to hold travel bubble talks with China and Malaysia this month, days after resuming a quarantine-free visa programme to boost tourist arrivals seen as key to sustaining a nascent economic recovery.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's government will soon discuss with the Chinese Minister for Culture and Tourism details of a possible bilateral travel deal, Mr Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana, a government spokesman, said in a statement on Monday (Feb 7).

Thai officials are also preparing to hold talks with neighbouring Malaysia later this month for a similar agreement, he said.

Thailand is chasing bilateral deals to spark a broader recovery in its pandemic-battered tourism industry after the waiver of quarantine for vaccinated visitors and the so-called tourism sandbox experiments in recent months failed to draw a large number of holidaymakers.

The return of Chinese and Malaysian tourists, the largest groups of visitors to the South-east Asian nation before the pandemic, is seen by the industry as key to a sustainable rebound.

"We think a travel bubble will be more positive for Thailand's tourism sector than the currently implemented 'Test & Go' quarantine-free scheme, as the latter alone is not enough to attract tourists who will have to quarantine on their return," Mr Tim Leelahaphan, a Bangkok-based economist at Standard Chartered, said in a note.

"While the plan is a good starting point, we think a clear and strong recovery path is unlikely any time soon and is more likely in the second half or late this year."

Chinese and Malaysian tourists accounted for more than one-third of the 40 million visitors to Thailand in 2019, contributing more than US$20 billion (S$26.92 billion) in tourism revenue, according to official data.

Chinese tourists have shunned Thailand since the Covid-19 outbreak, with Beijing imposing curbs on outbound travel.

Under the travel bubble, tourists will not be subjected to quarantine, and can enjoy special visa and accommodation arrangements, Mr Thanakorn said.

The countries will also agree on a quota for travellers and identify specific zones for their movements to prevent fresh Covid-19 outbreaks, he said.

"The Prime Minister believes Thailand remains an attractive tourist destination for foreign travellers even during the pandemic," Mr Thanakorn said.

"The government has supported the restoration of tourism in a new normal" that seeks a balance between safety of travellers and the public, which may become the model for tourism in the future, he said.

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