“Travel bubbles” may be feasible for Thailand, the country’s top disease-control official said, but excessive restrictions attached to them could render them useless.
Suwanchai Wattanayingcharoenchai, director-general of the Disease Control Department, said Thursday that Thailand said foreign-travel restrictions have been relaxed to allow groups of visitors from select countries, such as government guests, diplomats, businesspeople from Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong. The majority of travelers would have to endure 14-day quarantines and meet exorbitant insurance requirements to enter.
General tourism, however, likely won’t resume until at least next month and, even then, in numbers so limited that it wouldn’t do anything to ese the tourism industry’s distress.
The Tourism and Sports Ministry has proposed that tourists from countries that have not seen community-spread outbreaks of Covid-19 for 60 days be allowed to visit only five destinations in Thailand without having to be quarantined: Chiang Mai, Pattaya, Koh Samui and islands in Krabi and Phuket provinces.
The 60-day threshold for disease-control is absurd, however. No country in the world – even Thailand – has gone two months without a single case of Covid-19 being reported. The World Health Organization deems countries without 30 days of uncontrolled local transmission as “safe”.
Similarly ludicrous is the ministry’s list of countries it believes would qualify: Japan, Taiwan and China.
China is still trying to quell a fresh outbreak in Beijing that has infected 328 people and required a partial lockdown of the capital. And Japan today reported 107 new cases – a two-month high. Any consecutive-day test would have to apply either to cities or provinces, or have a limit on the number of cases it would still consider safe. Requiring zero cases simply is unrealistic.
The European Union, for one, would like to start accepting Thai tourists. It placed the kingdom on a list of “safe” countries with 14 others. But Thailand seemingly has no interest in reciprocating. Even if the country allowed Thais to fly to Europe, they may not be able to get back or would be stuck in isolation.
“I don’t think (Thais) would like to travel abroad if they have to be quarantined for up to 14 days when they get back home,” said Kritapas Patamanate, managing director of AOM Travel, a tour operator in Bangkok.
Suwanchai said quarantine currently is only being waved for government guests and short-term business travelers, although they have to undergo a coronavirus test upon arrival with results available in one hour. They also just use the government’s Thai Chana contact-tracing app and stick to a predefined travel and activity schedule.
Foreign nationals seeking medical treatment in Thailand are also allowed to visit but be under the control of hospitals. They can take a tour after completing treatment after passing a Covid-19 test.
Travel-bubble tourists, however, expect not to have to undergo quarantine. The only way that will be possible is to have rapid testing available around the country. A Koh Samui tourism executive said this week that the island’s new 4-hour testing lab could allow it to receive foreign tourists who fly directly to Surat Thani in September.
This year is expected to welcome only 8 million foreign tourists, down 80 percent from 2019. Millions in the hospitality industry are out of work and the overall economy is expected to contract as much as 8 percent this year. Thailand needs to open its borders to revive the economy, but some people – not connected to the tourism sector of course – would be happy to see Thailand remain closed to the world.
Dr. Thira Woratanarat, an epidemiologist at Chulalongkorn University, wrote on his Facebook page this week that allowing foreigners to enter Thailand would be “asking for trouble”
“We should not even entertain the thought of travel bubble arrangements and resuming medical and wellness tourism at this time,” said the doctor, who has been doom-saying about “second waves” and the risks of foreigners since March.
In the end, Thailand’s rulers are going to have to accept that new coronavirus outbreaks are inevitable. Millions of Thais are hungry, out of work and increasingly killing themselves due to the foreign-tourism shutdown. Admitting only a few thousand visitors a day isn’t going to help. Yes, there will be new cases, but with no active local coronavirus cases, the country can handle outbreaks when they occur, just as it does dengue fever or seasonal flu. The virus is here to stay. It’s time start managing it that way.