Today is the day for which millions of Thais have been waiting more than a year: Thailand will begin allowing fully-vaccinated tourists from 63 countries to enter without (lengthy) quarantine – but still plenty of cost and hassle – in hopes of jump-starting the nation’s vital tourism engine.

The marketing slogans used by the government – “Test & Go” and “No Quarantine” — are outright lies. But it is true that the barrier to enter Thailand has been lowered compared with early this year or even since the Phuket “sandbox” experiment began in July.

And Thai officials – who originally said 10 “low-risk” countries would qualify for the program only to expand the list to 46, made a last-minute tweak, adding 17 more nations: India, Taiwan, Laos, Luxembourg, Myanmar, the Philippines, Croatia, Indonesia, Kuwait, Maldives, Mongolia, Nepal, Oman, Romania, Slovakia, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Russia still isn’t on the list.

The question is how many real tourists – not returning expats or Thais – will be willing put up with the hassle and cost of mandatory insurance, mandatory one-night quarantine in a government-certified hotel, double coronavirus testing and plenty of paperwork.

For most, it will be cheaper and easier to go somewhere else, even in Southeast Asia, which is what Thai officals fear most.

Planes carrying about 7,000 people – a huge chunk of them not tourists, but returning residents – will touch down at Suvarnabhumi International Airport. From there they will be shuttle inside sealed vans to hospitals and quarantine-hotels for invasive and redundant coronavirus tests, just 72 hours after they all endured a first test. In that hotel they must remain until a negative test result comes back, hopefully within a day.

From there, the arrivals can travel freely throughout the country.

Long Time Coming

The limited reopening has been a long time coming. In June last year, officials predicted mass tourism would resume in September 2020. The Tourism Authorty of Thailand estimated then estimated tourists wouldn’t return until October 2020. No one could have fathomed they would see more than a full year pass, more than 1.9 million more Covid-19 cases and nearly 20,000 deaths before tourism would resume. In the interim, those who survived the coronavirus’ alpha and delta waves suffered the worst economic devastation the country has seen since 1997-98.

The “fight to win foreign tourists” commences as countries from Australia to the United Kingdom – as well as Singapore, Vietnam and Cambodia reopen also relax coronavirus restrictions. But, of those, Thailand’s experiment to do away with all but a day of quarantine is the most ambitious and, if successful, could prove a model for more-timid countries.

“We’re not expecting the rooms to be full overnight, but it’s a great first step,” John Blanco, general manager at Bangkok’s Capella Hotel told Bloomberg News. “All countries are taking the same posture; that is, we need to learn to live with Covid. It’s a general theme around the world.”

While hotels have started filling in places where disease-control measures have been eased, Thailand still may prove too scary for many travelers, as it still ranks low of the Covid-19 Resiliency Rankings.

“I’m confident the reopening will greatly benefit the country, especially in the tourism high season that normally lasts into early next year,” said Tourism Authority of Thailand Gov. Yuthasak Supasorn. “TAT is now expecting more than a million tourists to come in the next six months.”

A map of the countries allowed to visit Thailand "without quarantine" starting today.
A map of the countries allowed to visit Thailand “without quarantine” starting today.

Thailand fumbled in its 2020 reopening attempts due to two virus outbreaks in December last year and April this year, as well as the laughably slow rollout of Covid-19 vaccines.

But the country notched a bit of success from the Phuket sandbox. It failed miserably to bring in the number of expected visitors – and the Samui Plus program did even worse – but it proved to the overcautious ex-military rulers that vaccinated foreigners were not a threat. Only 0.28 percent of them tested positive in Phuket from July through September.

Migrant workers smuggled into the country, often with support from corrupt police and local administrators, as well as careless Thais themselves were the real disease threats.

Now that 45 percent of Thais are now fully vaccinated – albeit many with suspect Chinese-made potions – Thailand is linking its reopening to a higher vaccination rate

Amar Lalvani, chairman of U.S. boutique hotel operator Standard International, told Bloomberg that Thailand and the rest of Asia are pushing public health as a win to win the trust of tourists.

With November here, moribund tourism businesses slowly are cranking up the creaky machinery of the industry. International airlines are scheduling more flights while hotels and beach resorts are offering bargains.

Even actor Russell Crowe helped out, tweeting about Thailand’s tourism experiments while in Phuket and Bangkok for a movie shoot.

While Chinese tourists, who made up almost a third of the total arrivals before the pandemic, will be deterred by 21-day quarantine on return home, the reopening may still draw hundreds of thousands of visitors and stave off another year of economic contraction.

Thailand’s economy shrunk 6.1 percent last year, the worst performance since the Asian financial crisis in 1998.

But there remains widespread fear the reopening could spark another coronavirus wave. The country still is recording more than 8,000 cases a day. A severe lockdown was implemented in July when cases were at just 5,000 daily. Yet now the government feels like its safe to drop controls. A whopping 70-90 percent of those surveyed in recent polls disagree.

But for Thais that depend on tourism for their livelihoods – think Pattaya where thousands have stood in the sun for free food – reopening is not only worth the risk, the threat of starvation, suicide and poverty are far scarier than Covid-19.

“Opening up the country is necessary,” said Sanan Angubolkul, chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce. ”Because that is the way to ensure the survival of the people and the country.”