Thailand ready to tackle Covid-19 outbreak from reopening, minister says

Phuket will start receiving visitors with proof of vaccination from July 1, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG) - Thailand will limit the movement of foreign tourists to smaller islands that it is initially throwing open to vaccinated foreign visitors in the event of a flare-up in local coronavirus infections, a minister said.

Phuket, Samui and Phi Phi - among the first places to welcome inoculated tourists without quarantine before a wider national reopening - are all smaller islands and will allow the authorities to quickly curb movement if community transmission spikes, Minister of Tourism and Sports Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn said.

He ruled out the closing of borders to combat any virus clusters stemming from the reopening.

"We don't want to close our borders again because it took us so long to get to this point of reopening to foreign travellers and was very difficult," Mr Phiphat said in interview on Monday (June 28).

"We want Phuket and Samui to be opened so that foreigners can see that Thailand's islands are clean and virus-free to welcome them."

Phuket, Thailand's most popular tourist destination, will start receiving visitors with proof of vaccination from Thursday as the tourism-dependent South-east Asian nation takes the biggest step yet to revive the industry.

The reopening comes amid a surge in Covid cases in Bangkok and its surrounding provinces, stoking concerns if the entry of foreigners would fuel the outbreak and derail efforts to rebuild the nation's economy.

Samui island in Surat Thani province will open to visitors from overseas from July 15, followed by beach provinces Krabi and Phang Nga from August ahead of the planned national reopening in October, Mr Phiphat said.

The waiver of quarantine alone is unlikely to lead to a rush of tourists as prospective visitors may be deterred by requirements such as the US$100,000 (S$134,440) Covid-19 insurance cover and the cost of multiple tests, he said.

The reopening of more tourist destinations along with Phuket may make it attractive for visitors while also giving some respite to local businesses, Mr Phiphat said.

The Tourism Ministry expects about 100,000 tourists to visit Phuket over the next three months, with the industry already reporting about 20,000 bookings, he said.

"Travelling during the time of Covid-19 pandemic will come with a higher price tag, so those who choose to come here must be able to shoulder those costs," Mr Phiphat said. "During pre-pandemic times, travel costs here may be 50,000 baht (S$2,099) per week, but now it will have increased to at least 70,000 baht a week."

Asia has been slow to reopen as vaccine roll-outs lag behind countries like the United States, New Zealand and Switzerland, which are ranked as Bloomberg's top three best places to be as the world reopens based on their expansive and fast vaccine distributions, effective shots and lockdown severity.

Thailand aims to vaccinate at least 50 per cent of its population by October and fully reopen its borders in 120 days, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said on June 16.

"If in July we're able to continue to assure the safety of travellers, make the conditions easier for them, we may be able to attract travellers who are still hesitant to come here and achieve our target," Mr Phiphat said.

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