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Travel Bubbles ‘Can Wait’, Foreign Minister Says As Thai Economy Continues Plunge

Business leaders increasingly worry that government's fear of virus is strangling economy.

Thailand Empty Airport No Tourists Travel Bubble
Suvarnabhumi International Airport is virtually deserted on July 18.

Thailand’s foreign minister dashed the already-dim hopes of foreign tourism resuming in Thailand anytime soon, saying so-called “travel bubbles” can wait.

During a upper house exchange Monday with Sen. Jate Sirataranont, Minister Don Pramudwinai said travel bubbles would proceed on a “stage-by-state basis” due to the virulence of the coronavirus around the world. He did not elaborate the stages concept.

Thailand looked last month looked like it was ready to pull the trigger on bilateral deals to exchange tourists with countries that have controlled their coronavirus epidemics, including Japan, China and South Korea.

But after new outbreaks in those countries, Chula Sukmanop, director-general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand, said on July 8 that he expected negotiations to finalize travel bubbles would be delayed “indefinitely”.

Last week’s government bungle that allowed a Egyptian airman infected with Covid-19 to browse a Rayong shopping mall, a pair of diplomats to attempt self-quarantine at their condos and the discovery of a dozen coronavirus cases on two flights transiting Bangkok have scared the already-timid generals off the idea of reopening borders to tourists.

Indeed, the country has only been letting a trickle of its own citizens back in the country. The slow pace of repatriation was why Jate interrupted Don’s Senate presentation about to demand answers.

Don said about 8,200 Thais have registered to return by the end of July, but Center for Covid-19 Situation Administration spokesman Dr. Taweesin Visanuyothin said Monday that the number of repatriations is capped at 600 per day. At that rate, it will take weeks to bring everyone home.

Since April 4, about 50,000 Thais returned and 310 of them were infected with COVID-19, Don said. One new infection was found in a quarantined Thai on Monday.

Meanwhile, the CCSA on Wednesday will debate whether to allow migrant workers from neighboring countries to return to Thailand to ease the country’s labor shortage.

Business leaders are increasingly anxious over the government’s closed-borders policy, saying its excessively strict anti-virus policy is strangling the economy.

Prominent investor Niwes Hemvachiravarakorn said the government needs to get over its worries about cases re-emerging in Thailand and trust that the country’s health-care infrastructure can handle it.

It’s a point that has been made numerous times, but ignored.

Somchai Jitsuchon, research director at the Thailand Development Research Institute, agreed that it’s time to start reviving the economy, which is heavily dependent on tourism.

Thailand should learn how to live with a few daily Covid-19 cases, he wrote on Facebook, because policies aimed at eradicating the virus completely were having a high economic cost.

“Initially, we could limit foreign arrivals as per the capacity of the healthcare system to handle new cases of perhaps 20-30 a day. We could open up to more visitors as capacity was upgraded,” he suggested.