Before the pandemic effectively closed Thailand off to the rest of the world in March of last year, Bangkok’s Kin & Koff Café was perfectly placed to catch the crowds of tourists passing by the city’s Golden Grand Palace and its orbit of opulent temples.
In the capital of one of the world’s most popular vacation getaways, the resplendent grounds of the former royal residence were a must-see for most first-time visitors. Then came COVID-19, the lockdown and a hard freeze on foreign tourists, decimating a mainstay of the Thai economy – and the hearts of Kin & Koff’s customers with it.
So, like many in the catering business of these tourists, owner Siripong Sanomaiwong hailed the news that Thailand will begin lifting long quarantine warrants for some fully vaccinated foreigners on November 1. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha announced the decision on October 11 in a televised address.
“I think the government is [acting] the right way to open up because we can’t hide from the virus, ”Siripong said on another slow day in his cafe opposite the palace walls.
“We have to live together with COVID; we must live together… in safety, ”he added, reflecting the general mood of the business community for cautious determination.
Risk and reward
In his speech, Prayut acknowledged the risks. He said daily COVID cases were “almost certain” to increase with newcomers, but insisted Thailand was ready and had to cash in the next peak season in November-March after missing the last one.
“We will have to follow the situation very carefully and see how to contain and live with this situation because I do not believe that the millions of people who depend on the income generated by the travel, leisure and entertainment industry can possibly afford the devastating blow. of a second lost New Year’s holiday, “he said.
The World Bank says tourism accounted for 20% of Thailand’s gross domestic product and more than one in five jobs in 2019, when some 40 million people visited the country. The government says Thailand will have the chance to see 100,000 visitors in 2021 and is targeting 1 million during this peak season.
The Tourism Council of Thailand, an industry body, says the lockdown has cost the country some 3 million tourism-related jobs. Even so, most Thais may not agree with the government’s timetable.
In an online poll conducted by Thailand’s Suan Dusit Rajabhat University between October 11 and 14, 60.1% of those polled said the country was not yet ready to reopen to tourists without a quarantine warrant. They cited Thailand’s low vaccination rate as the main reason.
While Bangkok and the popular resort island of Phuket have fully vaccinated the vast majority of residents, the nationwide full vaccination rate has only recently exceeded 40%. Daily new cases of COVID peaked at nearly 22,000 in mid-August, but have yet to drop below 7,000. Thailand has recorded around 1.88 million cases in total.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said local polls may be unreliable, but felt Suan Dusit’s latest effort frankly reflected popular mood.
“The feeling on the ground is that the number of infections is still high and that the government’s management of vaccines has been inept… [that] lives are still in danger and reopening too early is still not optimal, ”he said.
The government hopes to allay those fears by initially opening up to just 46 countries, including major markets such as the United States and China, much of Europe and some Asian neighbors.
In addition to showing proof of vaccination and a negative test result before departure, visitors must have health insurance covering COVID up to $ 50,000, download a tracking app, and wait overnight at a government-approved hotel. for the results of a second test on arrival. If allowed, they will be free to roam the country. Otherwise, they will have to spend more time in an approved hospital or hotel.
Siripong hopes this will be enough for its coffee to recover around 40% of its sales before the pandemic by March, and it is confident that authorities will be able to control the virus.
Katenaphas Muattong is not that optimistic.
She quit her catering job to help her parents run their small restaurant near the palace after the pandemic and their two employees saw their salaries cut and then quit. Taking advantage of online delivery services has helped them survive, but business is still less than a third of what it used to be.
Katenaphas worries the government will enforce entry rules in what she called “Thai style,” explaining that this means a lax attitude towards enforcement.
“On a [hand] we should open because business goes down, down, ”she said. “But if we don’t have a good plan, we should wait.”
Turning the thoughts back in her mind for a moment, she finally sided with the government and said Thailand should take the risk.
The owner of Vali Villa, Val Saopayana, is rather an avowed optimist.
Three years ago, the professional artist transformed his childhood home into a mid-range boutique hotel a few blocks from Khaosan Road in Bangkok, another popular tourist haunt full of vibrant bars and clubs. formerly dance music until the early hours of the morning. With barely a customer in sight on a recent Friday afternoon, most of the Strip was either closed or boarded up, a microcosm of the wider Thai tourism industry.
With Thailand reopening to foreigners, Val hopes to recover at least half of its pre-pandemic business by the end of this season.
“I have a good feeling that we are going to be able to do it and the whole economy in Thailand is going to be better because I believe in the medical system and they are trying to do their best,” she said.
“We just hope it gets back to normal very soon,” she added. “We have to believe and we have to have positive energy, and people are going to come.”
The Thai Travel Agents Association, another industry body, said “normal” will take a few more years, as some major markets such as China still impose weeks of quarantine on returning travelers.
“When you have that number of days in quarantine, it will be a real limit for us. So I think the opening, as we make great strides, will also depend a lot on the levels of restrictions and quarantine days in the countries of origin, ”said Pilomrat Isvarphornchai, ATTA board member.
She said the association was “realistic” about the upcoming high season and expected a 20% return to pre-pandemic activities for receptive travel agencies, at least for those still open. The latest survey of ATTA members found about half of them had closed in the past 19 months of lockdown, some for good.
“In terms of the economy, we are now at this point where we are going to have to learn to live with the pandemic, not just in terms of tourism but even by opening up to the country, for example with restaurants, with retail stores. It has to happen now, ”said Pilomrat.