BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG) - One of the most tourism-dependent countries in the world, Thailand is eyeing plans for vaccine passports and quarantine waivers as the global Covid-19 inoculation drive gathers pace.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha this week ordered officials to study vaccine certificates for international travel after signalling the nation - famed for its palm-fringed beaches, temples and backpacker culture - is open to scrapping the two-week quarantine for inoculated visitors.
The local tourism industry wants mandatory quarantines to be lifted from as early as July 1 so the nation can open to potentially millions of vaccinated travellers.
A successful reopening by Thailand could spur other tourism-reliant nations to follow suit, as countries like the UK set out ambitious timelines for easing restrictions on their populations and resuming international travel.
While the World Health Organisation this week warned about the risks of loosening up too fast, places like Thailand - which saw almost 40 million overseas visitors in 2019 - are seeing long-lasting damage to their economies with global travel paralysed and borders closed a year into the pandemic
"A gradual reopening, with the appropriate cautionary steps taken, will undoubtedly save businesses, jobs and bolster the economy," said Mr John Blanco, general manager at luxury hotel Capella Bangkok. "Given the building global momentum of vaccination, it would make sense to begin planning for the necessary steps."
Thailand's central bank says tourism, which accounted for about a fifth of the country's gross domestic product pre-pandemic, is key to returning South-east Asia's second-largest economy to growth.
Thailand's GDP contracted 6.1 per cent in 2020, the most this century.
Despite a flare-up in infections earlier this year, Thailand has largely contained Covid-19, with just 85 deaths over the course of the pandemic.
The country needs to balance keeping the virus out and protecting the local population with countering the economic hit. While it's already made some efforts to reopen borders to foreign tourists, strict quarantine rules have kept most away.
Mr William Heinecke, chairman of Minor International Pcl, which operates 500 hotels worldwide, is leading a campaign to petition the government to reopen the borders from the third quarter after the pandemic forced hundreds of hotels and tourism businesses to close.
"The current situation is unsustainable," says the online petition, which got almost 6,000 signatories in two days. "The July 1 reopening would be a strategic opportunity for Thailand to show a leadership role among Asian countries and prepare the way for a solid recovery of the Thai economy in 2022."
Mr Prayuth has cautioned against rushing to issue vaccine passports and wants more coordination with other countries.
On track to have vaccinated most of its population soon, Israel is making deals to allow its citizens to travel to a number of countries, including Greece.
While months away from issuing them, the European Union is also prioritising immunity certificates, and Britain is expected to conclude a review of "Covid status certification," but only by June 21.
Europeans, including people from the UK, made up 16 per cent of the foreign tourists into Thailand in 2019.
Thailand, which started its vaccine rollout this week, aims to inoculate 50 per cent of its population by the end of this year. There are also plans to distribute vaccines to tourist hotspots such as Phuket and Koh Samui in preparation for a wider reopening.
The government eased curbs on businesses and travel after bringing a recent flareup of the virus under control. But having skipped a nationwide lockdown to tackle the resurgence, Thailand may not return to zero cases anytime soon, according to Associate Professor Thira Woratanarat from Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Medicine.
"Figuring out how to reopen for tourists is as important as planning vaccine distribution," said Mr Somprawin Manprasert, chief economist at Bank of Ayudhya Pcl. "The sooner the country can reopen for tourists, the sooner the recovery."
"The second wave just delayed the recovery, rather than derailed it," he said. "Even though we're still in the dark, there's light at the end of the tunnel."