Thailand expects to welcome hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers a month with the kickoff of a quarantine-free visa program that is set to serve as a model for tourism-reliant countries balancing safe border reopenings with economic revival.
Starting Tuesday, visitors of any nationality can apply for quarantine-free entry into Thailand, provided they are fully vaccinated. The government expects between 200,000 and 300,000 travellers to take advantage of the so-called Test & Go programme in February alone, with the numbers expected to swell in the following months.
The wider reopening - a previous quarantine-free program was restricted to visitors from only about 60 countries - is part of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's push to adopt a 'living with the Covid' strategy to rescue the pandemic-battered economy. About a fifth of gross domestic product before the virus came from tourism-related activities.
Thailand moved up 18 places in Bloomberg's latest Covid resiliency ranking with its ramp-up in vaccinations and taming of the omicron-fuelled outbreak.
"It's a fine balance between tourism recovery and public health,” said Marisa Sukosol Nunbhakdi, president of the Thai Hotels Association. "We have to create confidence among the Thai society as there's still a large group of people hesitant about foreign travellers. If other nations are still hesitant they can come and look at the Thai Test & Go model."
The government expects 5 million foreign visitors this year, with the majority of arrivals expected from Europe and the United States, and the numbers may reach 9 million if Chinese and Indian tourists return, according to government spokesman Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana.
The outlook will remain hazy for the next few month, especially in terms of attracting travelers from China, the biggest group of visitors to Thailand before Covid, according to Tim Leelahaphan, a Bangkok-based economist at Standard Chartered. Still, the reopening should help Thailand swing back to a current-account surplus of about 1.5% of GDP this year, although the level will be below the average before the pandemic, he said in a report.
Thailand has experimented with several plans over the past two years to revive the travel sector, which attracted 40 million foreign tourists and generated more than $60 billion in 2019. About 350,000 visitors took advantage of the first phase of the Test & Go program before it was suspended in late December to prevent the spread of omicron variant.
"Thailand is among the world’s top tourist destinations because of all the beautiful attractions and the value for money," said Burin Adulwattana, chief economist at Bangkok Bank. "But the government should try to instill confidence among travelers that the policies won’t change again."