Opening up is the only way to rescue Thai tourism
Thailand's world-class tourism industry is in a deep, coronavirus-induced coma, close to death.
No life support is currently available. Pandemic paranoia has gripped the nation, freezing our bio-security risk management in full containment mode, meaning zero tolerance for local Covid-19 transmission.
The socio-economic, and some might add political, impacts of this crisis are huge. According to Fitch Solutions, if both direct and indirect contributions are included, tourism represents some 22% of GDP, and as much as 25% of employment, most of it in the unprotected informal sector where unemployment could reach 4-6 million.
This closed-door public health security policy is not sustainable. The Bank of Thailand says there can be no recovery without tourism, and no recovery of tourism without foreign tourists who account for at least 65 to 70% of the total industry. To open or not to open?
If the answer is the Special Tourist Visa (STV), with its 14-day quarantine, Thailand's tourism industry will die. Only a quarantine-free welcome can deliver the numbers needed to resuscitate the industry. The STV is allowing 40 tourists a day to enter; in 2019 daily arrivals averaged nearly 110,000.
How to open safely? This is the great conundrum facing Thailand and other countries around the world.
We cannot wait for vaccines. They stand no chance of eliminating the disease globally. A more realistic solution comes from the World Health Organization's (WHO) European Director: "The end of the pandemic is the moment that we as a community are going to learn how to live with this pandemic."
Enter the tourism industry's new normal: Learning to live with Covid-19. This means accepting there might be local transmission. It means quarantine-free entry for tourists, albeit under controlled conditions.
If we make this policy shift, Thailand will not be alone. Many governments and components of the international travel and tourism value chain are already rushing to construct the bio-security infrastructure necessary to rescue the industry from a global collapse.
The first step must be to undo the pandemic paranoia conditioning affecting the whole country so people understand why we have to manage the risks and how we can do this safely.
The second step is for the government to recognise the new normal requires maximum flexibility, a dramatic change of mindset, from creating barriers to easing access.
One can identify two types of visitors for the foreseeable future: Those who are willing to accept and pay for 14-day quarantine, and those who are not.
For the former, the doors should be flung wide open. No restrictions on countries of origin, no pre-paid accommodation and Covid-19 health insurance only for the quarantine period. The only requirement: A negative Covid-19 test less than 72 hours prior to flying. Visas-on-arrival for as long as you want should be the order of the day.
Assuming quarantine is strictly enforced, this new welcoming mindset would generate a small but useful and humane increase in essentially risk-free arrivals, so it must be accompanied by a rapid increase in Alternative State Quarantine (ASQ) accommodation throughout the country and in airlift capacity.
To allow the second category to enter safely, we must start constructing the much maligned "travel bubbles", quarantine-free travel between countries with low Covid-19 transmission rates.
Travel bubbles require multi-agency, bilateral, cooperation. They take time. So it is vital our Tourism Recovery Team is given the green light as soon as possible.
Here, at the receiving end, we need to select leading tourist destinations where access can be controlled. For these areas, the Ministry of Public Health (MOPH) should undertake systematic, surveillance testing and tracking to cover front line residents and migrant workers. All those tested will be given a health status and tracking app, which will be updated as regular testing continues. Eventually the app will also record vaccination status.
Testing is the key to living safely with the pandemic, to opening travel bubbles safely; large-scale testing would represent a major policy change for the Public Health Ministry.
The aim is to reassure foreign visitors of these destinations' near virus-free status, a claim we can underline by offering free Covid-19 health insurance for the duration of their stay.
Selection of our bubble partners must be data-driven, so as to allow a high degree of automaticity. As Covid-19 infection rates change around the world, so will our allowable travel bubbles.
Using international norms, criteria will include number of new cases, and positivity and testing rates. Thresholds will be for Thailand's epidemiologists to decide, once the political decision to open our borders for quarantine-free travel has been made.
Having selected our travel bubble partners, we need to accurately monitor the health status of the individual tourists from these countries.
Enter Common Pass, a standard global framework enabling people to document and present their Covid-19 status, in a way that participating governments can verify, while protecting individual data privacy; in effect a Covid-19 passport.
Although some 40 countries are, Thailand is not currently participating in Common Pass. We should be. It expects to become fully operational in early 2021. Until then, with no standard certifiable system for Covid-19 tests in place, we might decide to deploy the rapid 15-minute antigen tests that are coming onto the market at our airports as additional protection.
When Covid-19 started to spread across an unprepared world, Thailand was ranked first in anticipated impact severity. But our public health security system, ranked sixth in the world prior to the pandemic, and the willingness of the Thai people to put community first, enabled us to manage the potential disaster in an exemplary manner.
We have had six months to strengthen our public health capacities. It is time for the government to leverage our world-class public health security ecosystem and save our world-class tourism industry and the millions who depend on it.
Julian Spindler is a strategic communications consultant and long-time resident of Thailand.