BANGKOK - Thailand is pushing ahead with efforts to open up more regions to visitors by the end of the year in an attempt to revive its battered tourism sector.
But there is scepticism about the move, as the Covid-19 vaccination rate nationwide remains dismal.
The authorities are keen on reopening popular tourist spots like Hua Hin, Chiang Mai and Bangkok in October following the limited success of a pilot programme to reopen Phuket in July. The so-called Sandbox scheme generated some 1.6 billion baht (S$65.3 million) on the resort island.
Tourism accounted for about a fifth of Thailand's gross domestic product before the pandemic.
Reopening is "all right in theory", especially because the kingdom, like many other countries, is striving towards living with Covid-19, said Mr Isra Sunthornvut, Thailand country director at consultancy firm Vriens & Partners.
"Whether (the October reopening) is realistic, it represents a shift from the government's goal of zero Covid-19 cases, to living with the virus. They're also weighing the two aspects of health versus economy," said Mr Isra, a former member of parliament from the Democrat Party.
There have been some positive signs on the Covid-19 front in Thailand, with daily infections and deaths declining in recent weeks. Fewer than 15,000 cases are logged daily on most days - down from more than 20,000 in mid-August. The number of recovering patients has also been on the upswing, analysts told The Straits Times.
Mr Isra noted that although this is good news, the country is not yet in the clear yet, as infections are still relatively high.
"But it's reasonable to look towards an October opening even though there are doubts," he said, adding that "it's a matter of damned if you do and damned if you don't".
October's reopening plans is partially driven by the approaching peak tourist season, which is the last quarter of the year, said Maybank Kim Eng analyst Yuwanee Prommaporn.
"We believe there could be some risk of higher infections once the country reopens, but it is worthwhile to risk that, given that many livelihoods depend on it," said Ms Yuwanee.
Thai authorities have said that from October fully vaccinated foreign travellers will be able to visit Bangkok and four other provinces - Chon Buri, Phetchaburi, Prachuap Khiri Khan, where Hua Hin is located, and Chiang Mai - without undergoing hotel quarantine. The reopening could be extended to 21 other provinces later.
Under the Phuket Sandbox scheme, fully vaccinated travellers who test negative for Covid-19 upon arrival can freely roam around the island. They do not need to serve hotel quarantine.
The authorities have hailed the scheme as a success after the island welcomed more than 29,000 foreign arrivals. Three more Thai islands have reopened - Samui, Tao and Phangan - under a similar initiative called the Samui Plus plan.
The ambitious plans to reopen is however contingent on the country's national vaccination drive, which kicked off in June and has been marred by delays in procurement and supply of vaccines, as well as public hesitancy towards the Sinovac vaccine.
The national vaccine roll-out has sped up in the last month, finally achieving its target of administering in excess of 500,000 doses daily, about 200,000 more than in the initial phases.
Analysts note that the availability of vaccinations as well as the types of vaccines being dispensed have also improved, with the country expecting to receive 140 million doses this year, including the Pfizer vaccine.
"There will be more weapons to fight Covid-19 which will boost people's confidence in the battle against the virus," said Mr Isra.
The plan is for Thailand to fully vaccinate at least 70 per cent of its 70 million population by December. So far, almost 40 per cent of adults have received one dose and only 18 per cent are fully vaccinated.
Ms Yuwanee has cautioned against expecting any immediate economic recovery with the reopening.
She said estimates put the number of foreign arrivals at only 150,000 for the whole of this year - well below the 40 million who flocked to the kingdom annually pre-pandemic.
Foreigners would also be discouraged from visiting Thailand because their home countries would require them to quarantine upon returning from the kingdom if infection numbers remain high, said Ms Yuwanee. Some countries like the United States and Britain have already warned against travel to Thailand.