Thailand raises the white flag on foreign tourism for now as the world fights against the Covid-19 virus
A bolstering of the international flight network in April may offer some glimmer of opportunity according to the minister who said Thailand would be cautious in rolling out its vaccine programme to see how the vaccine takes effect in other countries first. Even so, the minister still predicts 10 million visitors in 2021 which is thought to be optimistic.
Thailand’s tourism industry will continue to take a back seat as far as the government is concerned as it now struggles with the raised prospect of a second wave of the coronavirus and attempts to renew the Thai economy with a shift to industrial development. On Wednesday, Thailand’s tourism minister indicated that, in any event, the kingdom is currently facing a tourism ‘drought’ as demand from holidaymakers to visit the country has dried up leaving only foreigners with personal links or attachments now visiting Thailand from abroad.
Thailand’s beleaguered tourism minister has painted a grim picture at the moment for the industry’s prospects as foreign tourist numbers fall to even the lowest levels targeted under admittedly restricted conditions.
Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn also indicated that the domestic tourism market has been cratered by a flare-up in Covid 19 infections which began in Chiang Rai at the end of November followed by a severe outbreak in Samut Sakhon and now another large cluster in Rayong with the spread of infections extended to 38 provinces. Thailand is again facing the very real possibility of a national lockdown.
Speaking to the media on Wednesday, Minister Phiphat described the response to the government’s long term Special Visa initiative from foreign tourists as lukewarm and suggested that any visitors to Thailand in the near future would be foreigners with personal links or business interests in the kingdom.
UK, Europe and the United States still battling the virus even as vaccines are being rolled out
Current outbreaks raging in the US, European Union and the United Kingdom have left many western countries now facing their darkest hour against the virus even as vaccination programmes are in the process of being rolled out.
The environment has sharply curtailed any impetus to travel among normally gallivanting holidaymakers at this time of year seeking a change of scenery and the sun. Not so this year, as uncertainty abounds throughout the world at national borders.
Minister Phiphat was specifically asked about the situation in the UK where a more infectious variant of the Covid 19 virus has been identified and which saw European countries and other destinations, for a short period, close their borders to Britain last week.
He responded that there was no need to take any action as visitors to Thailand from the UK were not at present normal tourists and were subject to a comprehensive state quarantine procedure.
Cabinet approved 15-day visa extension on Tuesday
The Thai cabinet, on Tuesday last, agreed to extend the basic tourist visa for tourists entering Thailand from 30 days to 45 days after the Foreign Ministry confirmed in recent weeks that tourist visas were now available to all 56 countries worldwide with which Thailand operated a visa on travel scheme before the pandemic.
The extension of 15 days is to allow for the quarantine period where visitors are catered for in paid-for accommodation under the government’s alternative quarantine scheme in luxury hotels.
Every foreign traveller entering the kingdom must comply with the 14-day quarantine scheme and other conditions necessary to secure permission to travel to Thailand in the first place.
Minster decidedly downbeat on short term tourism prospects for the kingdom until at least April 2021
Minister Phiphat was decidedly downbeat in his short term outlook for tourism in Thailand saying the country currently faced a ‘drought’ with a lack of demand from travellers around the world at this time.
He foresaw no pickup in foreign tourism before April when he said he hoped that international airlines would begin to ramp up flights.
IATA, the world airline industry body, plans to introduce a Covid 19 vaccine passport at around this time but Mr Phiphat’s thoughts were closer to home.
He held out the prospect again of some sort of ‘travel bubble’ agreement with China.
Still predicting 10 million visitors in 2021
Despite the bleak outlook in the shorter term, Mr Phiphat still suggests that Thailand could see 10 million tourists in 2021 which is, by far, the most bullish projection from a government official. He suggested that this, in turn, could generate ฿500 billion for the economy.
Earlier in December, Finance Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith predicted 8 million arrivals for next year but warned that it would be 2023 before anything like the level of mass tourism that was achieved in 2019 would be seen again in Thailand.
Finance and Economy ministers talk of a newly defined Thai economy less dependent on tourism
The finance minister also emphasised that Thailand must cast a new economic course towards S Curve industries of the future and move away from tourism.
Similar sentiments were expressed last week by Deputy Prime Minister and Energy Minister Supattanapong Punmeechaow who said that Thailand’s economy has been too dependent on tourism and even though it would be stronger than ever by 2022, it would no longer have this vulnerability.
‘It is unacceptable to let Thailand slide back to the period before Covid-19,’ Minister Supattanapong said as he gave a keynote address at the ‘Restart Thailand 2021’ event.
He predicted massive infrastructure investment by the government next year and an emphasis on inward investment to support Thailand’s industrial base in the future.
Caution about a mass vaccination programme, Thailand will not be a ‘guinea pig’ says minister
For those hoping to see the return of mass tourism to Thailand, the big hope next year is a mass vaccination programme in the country.
However, on Wednesday, even about this, the Minister for Tourism was being cautious.
The Bhumjaithai Party minister said that Thailand would be waiting until after the middle of 2021 to begin its vaccination programme even though a budget had already been provided for.
He said the first doses would be used to inoculate the most vulnerable while, thereafter, the kingdom would be manufacturing its own vaccine which would be free to the population.
‘The Public Health Ministry is quite serious about the decision to wait and see the side effects thoroughly. We don’t have to be a Covid vaccine guinea pig,’ Mr Phiphat explained.
Airlines and hotels hit by virus outbreaks
In the meantime, the threatened second wave of the virus has to be overcome. It has already knocked back what was nascent optimism in the domestic tourism market.
Airlines in Thailand which had begun to report loads of between 75% and 85% for the end of the year, unfortunately, are now seeing flights cancelled and flight loads dipping.
Minister Phiphat confirmed this and said that hotels working with government subsidies had agreed to let tourists who made a booking, cancel and reschedule their holidays for a time between 6 months to a year ahead.
‘We have to be careful as there are too many negative factors’ says Thai Lion Air boss about the outlook
Nuntaporn Komonsittivate, the Commercial Operations Manager with Thai Lion Air, a popular local airline, said the Covid-19 spike from Samut Sakhon in the last week and the further spread of the virus which emerged after the initial outbreak in Chiang Rai caused by returning Thai migrant workers from Myanmar, has spooked the markets.
‘The colder weather this month was favourable for tourism activities, but unfortunately, the string of new cases weakened passenger demand. As of now, the monthly load factor is lingering at 70%, while forward booking is difficult to predict,’ she said. ‘We have to be careful as there are too many negative factors. In addition to the outbreak, international flights are unlikely to return, even repatriation flights, in the near future for our airline.’
About the Author
James Morris is a pename for an international writer based in Bangkok who works on various international news media. He is a sub editor with the Thai Examiner news website since it began in 2015. Son Nguyen is an international writer and news commentator specialising in Thai news and current affairs. He commenced working with the Thai Examiner News Desk in May 2018.