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Thailand Hopes Travel ‘Bubbles’ Can Revive Comatose Tourism Industry

Prayut adds fuel to fire that tourists may be restricted to remove areas once borders reopen

Thailand Tourists Patpong Bangkok Bars Night Market
Tourists walk past the Patpong Night Market and go-go bars in Bangkok's famous red light district before Thailand's coronavirus lockdown.

With its tourism industry in a coma, Thailand is hoping that bubbles will be the thing to revive it.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on Tuesday gave more credence to supposition that Thailand would only reopen its borders to countries who have suppressed the coronavirus at least as well as the Land of Smiles has. The so-called “travel bubbles” would allow international tourism to resume without exposing the country to massive risk of a second wave of coronavirus infections.

“Once the situation improves, we’ll allow travel between countries that we have an agreement with,” Prayut said after a Cabinet meeting Tuesday.

The bubble term was coined by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern who inked a bilateral travel agreement with Australia. Both countries have been among the world’s leaders in suppressing community transmission of the virus.

But similar agreements also are underway in Europe, where countries have termed them “travel corridors”. Israel, Greece and Cyprus have discussed a tourism “safe zone” in the eastern Mediterranean.

The process is also well underway in Asia, where tourist arrivals have cratered this year by 33 percent in Southeast Asia and 40 percent in North Asia.

China and South Korea inflated a “bubble” on May 1 for business travelers, requiring executives to undergo a short quarantine and at least one negative coronavirus test in each country. Singapore has joined their conversation as well as talking with Canada. A “Pearl River Delta travel bubble” would connect Hong Kong, Macao and select Chinese cities. And Vietnam has opened talks with Japan.

Thailand – which saw 40 million visitors last year – unsurprisingly has been a no-show in the bubble race. The country’s economic reopening has been progressing at a snail’s pace and Prayut admitted travel deals have not been negotiated yet.

All flights in and out of the country, other than charter repatriation flights, have been banned since early April and will not resume until at least June 30. Even after that foreigners coming to the country – even those with wives, jobs and permanent residency – will have to undergo 14 days of state quarantine at their expense, carry US$100,000 in health insurance with coronavirus cover, and obtain hard-to-get “fit to fly” certifications.

In addition to taking visitors only inside a bubble, Thailand also may not allow tourists to roam freely. Yuthasak Supasorn, governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, said May 27 that only relatively remote areas of the country made be reopened to tourists.

“We have studied a possibility of offering special long-stay packages in isolated and closed areas where health monitoring can be easily controlled — for example, Koh Phangan and Koh Samui,” he said. “This will be beneficial for both tourists and local residents, since this is almost a kind of quarantine.”

Prayut seemed to hint at the same thing Tuesday. “There won’t be free movement because we don’t want another outbreak that could hurt both the origin and the destination.”

But travel bubbles are no guarantee of safety, and they made be just as fragile as the kind made of soap.

“Bubbles will be volatile. If there’s a resurgence of cases in a country, the travel corridors will just close,” Mario Hardy, CEO of the nonprofit Pacific Asia Travel Association, said in a recent interview. “It’s likely to be a long time before there’s widespread traveling beyond our regional bubbles.”