Hopes high as tourists touch down for Thailand reopening

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Tourists taking photos in front of James Bond Island in Phang Nga Bay northeast of Phuket on Saturday, as the country prepares to welcome fully vaccinated visitors without quarantine starting Monday. AFP

Tens of thousands of travellers were expected to touch down in Bangkok and the holiday island of Phuket on Monday as Thailand reboots its tourism industry after 18 months of Covid curbs.

The coronavirus pandemic hammered the kingdom’s tourism-reliant economy, which last year saw its worst performance since the 1997 Asian financial crisis with arrivals down more than 80 per cent.

Thai authorities have given the green light to vaccinated tourists from more than 60 “low-risk” countries to skip hotel quarantine – providing the sector a much-needed lifeline.

Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport and Phuket’s international terminal will be the first to receive visitors under the relaxation, with the rest of the country following suit.

Thailand hopes to capitalise on travellers escaping the winter blues during December, with several European countries, the US and China on the approved list.

“The most important thing that the government and I are thinking right now is to make people’s livelihoods return to normal,” Premier Prayut Chan-o-cha said on Friday.

Tourism accounts for nearly a fifth of the economy and the impact of the pandemic has reverberated across various sectors, from restaurants to transportation.

But authorities expect 10 to 15 million visitors to return next year, with revenues forecast to surpass $30 billion.

“In 2023, we believe the revenues will be close with the figure of the year 2019,” tourism minister Pipat Ratchakitprakarn said.

Industry insiders are less optimistic, however, especially with regional giant China – the source of the lion’s share of tourists – still requiring returnees to undergo a strict quarantine programme.

Thailand is still registering about 10,000 Covid-19 infections a day while only about 40 per cent of the population have received two doses of a vaccine.

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Bar girls prepare for the evening in a pub on the popular Bangla Road in Patong on the Thai island of Phuket on Thursday, as the country prepares to welcome fully vaccinated visitors without quarantine. AFP

In Bangkok, the double-dose vaccination rate is higher at close to 80 per cent.

‘Cannot be the same’

Pre-pandemic Thailand saw nearly 40 million visitors arrive annually to stroll its sandy beaches, sample street food and enjoy its infamous nightlife.

A pilot reopening scheme dubbed the “sandbox” kicked off in July, with Phuket allowing fully vaccinated visitors to roam the island paradise for two weeks before being allowed to travel to other areas of Thailand.

But it drew just 58,685 visitors in four months, a drop in the ocean compared to the numbers Thailand has come to expect.

Beachside vendors in Phuket were itching for a higher influx on the eve of the reopening.

Dit, 18, who works at his uncle’s sun lounge and juice bar on Kamala Beach, said their income was about $150 a day before the pandemic.

The business was forced to close for several months but re-opened three weeks ago and is now generating about $30 a day.

“We had to use our savings, grow vegetables and catch fish to survive,” Dit said.

“This [reopening] will be better than the small sandbox tourist numbers, but we don’t expect all the deck chairs to be filled straight away.”

Further down the beach a trio of fire dancers wowed a dozen guests eating dinner at a hotel with a daredevil display of twirling and fire-breathing.

“We haven’t had much work. Not much money. I have a four-year-old son. It’s been a hard time,” one dancer said.

But in Koh Phi Phi – a popular island stop on the booze-fuelled backpacker trail – entrepreneurs were wary of a return to “business as usual”.

“Before it was the cheapest tourists in the world and all they wanted was sex, drugs and alcohol,” said Roger Andreu, who works at a dive shop.

“We need to make money but it cannot be the same.”