FOCUS: Thailand cautious over reopening to tourists from November

© Kyodo News

Thailand is gearing up to reopen the country from November even as its high COVID-19 rate poses a dilemma for the government, which seeks to control the pandemic while mitigating its impact on the tourism-reliant economy.

Although Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha announced in mid-June that the country would fully open within four months, a daily infection caseload exceeding 10,000 has forced his government to settle for a partial reopening starting Nov. 1.

Addressing the nation about the reopening plan on Oct. 11, Prayut said fully vaccinated visitors from certain low-risk countries will be allowed to enter Thailand without quarantine from next month.

The list of eligible countries, including Britain, China, Germany, Singapore and the United States, will be gradually expanded from December.

The foreign visitors will be welcomed in designated places of 10 provinces, including the bustling capital Bangkok and the northern tourist hub of Chiang Mai, known for its diverse cultural and natural attractions.

The original plan was altered after relevant agencies cautioned that the goal of fully vaccinating at least 70 percent of the population remains far from being achieved.

A trial reopening has been under way since July in the southern resort islands of Phuket and Samui, plus some smaller islands. They have accepted a limited number of COVID-free and fully vaccinated foreign tourists, who can stay for 14 days under health protocols before traveling elsewhere in Thailand if testing negative.

Since the start of the flagship "Phuket Sandbox" scheme, over 43,000 foreign tourists have visited the idyllic island, with only 148 of them testing positive as of mid-October.

Thailand's private sector has welcomed the step-by-step reopening of the country after being hammered by the pandemic since early last year.

Business figures who spoke with Kyodo News shared the view that lockdown measures cannot continue indefinitely. They said people must learn to live with the coronavirus as an endemic reality to pave the way for economic recovery.

Sanan Angubolkul, chairman of the Board of Trade of Thailand, said that while he supports the government's reopening plan, it must accelerate the provision of vaccines for both Thais and foreign residents to create "herd immunity" at the earliest.

"Many businesses, accounting for three-fourths of all enterprises in the country and over 18 million workers, have been affected by the pandemic during the past year. It's time that the government and people learn to live with the pandemic safely and allow the businesses activities to proceed as normal," he said, while urging stringent prevention measures amid the gradual reopening.

Suphan Mongkolsuthee, chairman of the Federation of Thai Industries, said Thailand is ready for reopening as the public health care system has proven its ability to manage infections.

Yet, he said, Thailand should not reopen the whole country at once as each area faces different circumstances, with many people in some rural areas of the country yet to be fully vaccinated.

Private sector organizations have jointly concluded that the reopening plan could ward off a recession and enable the Thai economy, which welcomed around 40 million tourists in 2019, to expand between 0.7-1.2 percent this year.

Thai Restaurant Association President Taniwan Koonmongkon lamented that due to the pandemic, tens of thousands of restaurateurs and street food venders have had to shut down their businesses.

Taniwan agreed with the reopening plan would pave the way for economic activity to further resume while allowing more people to earn a living. "Lockdown measures would only dampen growth. We have to learn to live with the pandemic," she said.

She said most Thais are eager to be vaccinated and forecast that the 70 percent vaccination goal could be achieved within the year.

As for the health risks of reopening, Medical Association of Thailand President Amorn Leelarasamee said an inflow of foreign visitors will have unavoidable consequences.

Therefore, he suggested the government maintain essential infection prevention measures, particularly the just revised 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew, while people must maintain self-discipline and continue taking such precautions as getting vaccinated, wearing masks and practicing social distancing.

"The daily infection figure should be around 5,000 or less for reopening the country. But I understand that the economy needs to be quickly restored, so we have to find a balancing point to live with it," he said.

However, some Thais have voiced their concerns about the risks that would come with the country reopening.

Freelance make-up artist Viracha Tussanaumpai, 35, said she was delighted that the reopening will be slightly delayed even though the impact affects her income. She said the most worrying factor is the country's infection caseload, which is still high.

"Frankly speaking, I think the situation is still out of control, and the government should reopen the country when the caseload is significantly small...the economic situation will not be worse than this, so we can wait," she said.

Airline engineer Thanan Vongsuravanich, 45, said the schedule does not matter as it would be safer to reopen after more than half of the population have had their second dose of vaccine.

"The incoming visitors could possibly bring the virus to the country, leading to a new wave of outbreak," he said.

Among a total population of 66.1 million, vaccinated people as of Oct. 13 numbered 36.1 million for the first dose and 24.4 million for the second dose.