Mladen ANTONOV / AFP
Even as Thailand’s tourism industry continues to take a hit due to the coronavirus pandemic, the country says it is in no hurry to welcome back foreign visitors until 2021.
Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya of Thailand’s tourism authority said during a recent virtual seminar that there has been “no discussion” about the immediate reopening of Thailand’s tourism industry, which raked in 1.93 trillion baht ($62 billion) last year.
On the potential for a Southeast Asian travel bubble, Chattan said that discussions have been halted due to rising cases in neighboring countries like Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, which were previously thought to have contained their outbreaks.
“I see no signal from the government that Thailand will reopen this year,” he said on Wednesday, August 5, adding that the peak inbound travel periods of Christmas and Chinese New Year may see a downturn.
“The Christmas period, usually a high-season, is now in jeopardy, and I’m even looking all the way to Chinese New Year in February, which is an iffy proposition at best now.”
“It isn’t a rosy picture,” he admitted.
According to the Bangkok Post, Thailand saw a record of 39.8 million foreign tourists in 2019, roughly equivalent to half the size of Thailand’s entire population. The outlet said that tourism accounts for about 12 percent of the country’s economy.
Chattan said that although the financial risks of not reopening to international travelers remain high, locals have expressed concern about the possibility of new cases being imported into the country.
“There’s still a lot of nervousness,” he said. “We’re taking a very, very cautious approach.”
Chattan added that while ideas about allowing tourists into the country for extended periods only were being discussed, the proposal was “not moving forward at the moment.”
“The government, understandably, is taking a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude,” he said.
Thailand’s cautious approach to reopening its borders seems to have allowed it to keep its coronavirus outbreak in check. As of Wednesday, August 12, the country has only seen 3,356 cases and 58 deaths. For over two months, there have been no cases of local transmission among its population of 69.4 million.
But tourism remains vital to the Thai economy, which slid into a recession in May after observing its worst quarter in eight years. An April report from the United Nations International Labour Organization predicted that up to six million tourism jobs could be cut as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Chatton admitted that even if the country reopened its borders in January 2021, “we expect that we won't get more than 7 million tourists all year.”
With the absence of foreign tourists, Thailand has turned its attention to promoting domestic tourism in the country, approving three stimulus packages worth 22.4 billion baht ($720 million) in June.
Deputy government spokeswoman Traisuree Taisaranakul said the first package would be used to fund leisure travel for 1.2 million healthcare workers, who will then inject the money into local tour companies. The other packages will subsidize food, accommodation and services at tourist hotspots, as well as domestic airfare and travel, according to the Bangkok Post.
Locals are also able to take advantage of beach resorts free of international visitors that have recently reopened to more stringent cleanliness standards. Several hotels told CNN Travel that since reopening last month, they have experienced high occupancy rates.
"We expected to be busy when we reopened but the demand was beyond our initial forecast and it truly was incredible," Graham Ure, the general manager of the beachfront Anantara Hua Hin told CNN Travel in July.
As Thailand mulls over reopening, some countries across Asia, including the Maldives, Cambodia and Nepal, are beginning to ease bans on inbound travel. Others, like Singapore and Malaysia are starting small by reopening their shared borders this month to business and essential travelers.