Thai authorities desire "quality tourists" as a wider reopening approaches
Island Wrap #56: Pandemic edition for September 25 to October 8, 2021
Welcome to the free version of Thai Island Times. For $6 USD per month or $60 for 12 months, you can gain access to at least four additional articles and several shorter pieces each month. Give this a look if you’d like to learn more about paid subscriptions.
Thailand’s Covid-19 containment and international travel rules were eased over the last two weeks, offering some hope that the worst of the pandemic is in the past. But we’re not out of the woods yet. Several parts of the country continue to struggle with outbreaks, and some observers worry that government policies could sabotage a much-needed inbound tourism recovery in 2022.
The Covid-19 situation
Thailand reported 1,518 confirmed Covid-19 deaths over the last two weeks. As sad as that is, it does represent a roughly 25% decline in deaths compared to the previous fortnight. Confirmed cases also fell to 10,866 per day, on average, over the last two weeks. 3,003 patients were in serious condition yesterday, with 682 of them on ventilators. Those figures represent modest improvements as well.
The vaccination rate has been locked in at an average of around 600,000 doses per day over the last four weeks. More than 32% of Thailand’s population is fully vaccinated, and 49% have received a first dose. With a consistently strong daily vaccination rate and a supply of vaccines that appears adequate, Thailand is now poised to fully inoculate at least 70% of its population before the year’s end.
Booster doses of the AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines have been administered to nearly 1.6 million people who previously got two doses of Sinovac. In Phuket, 34% of residents had received boosters by October 5th. Boosters are also reaching other tourism-reliant islands that are part of current or forthcoming reopening programs, including Ko Phangan and Ko Larn.
At 75% and 56% respectively, Phuket and Bangkok have the highest provincial inoculation rates. All other provinces are still below the 50% line, and the rates remain low in several provinces that are now battling serious outbreaks. For example, only 21% of Nakhon Si Thammarat residents have received two doses, while the rate in Narathiwat stands at 23% and Chanthaburi is at 26%.
Much of the focus of health officials has shifted to the South, where the Covid-19 situation has not improved in the four deep Southern provinces. More field hospitals were recently opened in Yala, where yesterday’s total of 776 confirmed cases was second only to Bangkok among all Thai provinces.
The virus is also straining local health systems along parts of the eastern Gulf, where 11 patients sadly died on October 5th in Rayong. Neighboring Chanthaburi has been facing its highest confirmed case counts of the entire pandemic, with 300 reported yesterday. In response, the governor imposed a total ban on the sale of alcohol in all districts of Chanthaburi province until November 1st.
Back in the South, Nakhon Si Thammarat authorities forced parts of the provincial capital into lockdown as daily confirmed cases spiked into the 300 to 500 range. Hospital bed shortages are hampering parts of Krabi province, which reported 14 deaths in as many days. Officials hope that an influx of vaccines will enable Krabi to bolster and expand its role in international tourism reopening.
Phuket’s Covid-19 situation improved compared to the previous fortnight, with confirmed deaths falling to 21 and cases to 2,607 since September 25th. Authorities released an Urak Lawoi community from lockdown and lifted a controversial rule that banned migrant workers from leaving the island. Still, more than 4,000 patients were receiving medical care in Phuket as of yesterday.
Confirmed cases jumped to 100 on Ko Samui over the last two weeks, but officials on Ko Phangan reported only six cases and just four surfaced on Ko Tao after mass testing and an influx of vaccines quelled an outbreak. Over in the eastern Gulf, eight cases were found on Ko Chang along with two on Ko Kut. In the Andaman, Ko Phi Phi reported 19 cases, and four surfaced on Ko Lanta.
I’ve not written much in these reports about Thailand’s lesser-known islands because their Covid-19 stats are often clumped into larger districts, but the virus has not spared many of them. Over recent weeks I’ve heard from people who live on or near Ko Libong, Ko Si Boya, Ko Phra Thong, Ko Phayam, and Ko Phaluai, among others, who say that outbreaks and/or lockdowns have hit these islands.
New rules that took effect on October 1st trimmed the curfew in “dark red” provinces by an hour, to 10:00 PM to 4:00 AM. Cinemas, spas, gyms, swimming pools, libraries, museums, day-care centers, salons and tattoo parlors were allowed to reopen. Live music is permitted in restaurants, but musicians are supposed to wear masks and only five members of any given band can perform at once.
The shutdown of bars and other nightlife venues that began in April remains in effect, but alcohol is again being served in restaurants on Phuket and Ko Samui. While the rules are loose in Phuket, officials on Ko Samui imposed a “green zone” policy requiring staff and patrons of establishments that serve alcohol to be vaccinated. If you want a drink on Ko Samui, 87 restaurants can legally oblige.
The rules remain tighter in many places. In Krabi, no alcohol can be legally served in restaurants, which are required to close by 8:00 PM. In the Northeastern city of Nakhon Ratchasima, 11 staff and 29 patrons were slapped with fines of 12,500 baht ($370 USD) for serving and drinking alcohol in a restaurant.
Domestic travelers are venturing out again, though many are choosing easy-to-enter destinations like Hua Hin and Pattaya over those that require vaccination and/or proof of a negative Covid-19 test, such as Phuket and Ko Samui. Some areas that were closed to tourism for extended periods, including Salak Phet on Ko Chang and the Ban Krang birdwatching camp in Kaeng Krachan, recently reopened.
Some of the smaller islands have yet to reopen to domestic tourism, so be sure to check with local lodgings before committing to a trip. It appears that domestic travel could pick up considerably from November onwards.
This from the UK ambassador to Thailand was music to the ears of many British residents.
Sandbox duration shortened
Thailand’s “sandbox-style” reopening programs are now open to vaccinated travelers from anywhere in the world, erasing a rule that limited the programs to travel from “low and medium risk” countries. A visa-on-arrival option was reinstated for citizens of some countries, such as India, that don’t qualify for 45-day visa-exempt stays. Of course, many other countries’ quarantine rules and/or curbs on outbound travel will keep deterring a lot of people from visiting Thailand.
The amount of time that vaccinated inbound travelers must spend in a sandbox destination, or in a quarantine hotel if entering via a non-sandbox area, was cut from 14 to seven days. The number of required Covid-19 tests that travelers must take during that first week in country was also chopped from three down to two, though a test taken no more than 72 hours before departure for Thailand is still required.
After being tested upon arrival at Phuket or Ko Samui, vaccinated inbound travelers can now leave these islands after minimal time and spend all or most of their first week in Phang Nga province at Khao Lak or Ko Yao Noi / Yai; in Krabi province at Ko Phi Phi, Railay, Khlong Mueang, Tub Kaek, or Ko Ngai; or north of Ko Samui at Ko Phangan or Ko Tao. Also, the rules for the Samui Plus Sandbox program were eased to make them more similar to the Phuket Sandbox.
Thailand extended the availability of a Special Tourist Visa (STV) to September 2022. Launched last year, the STV enables tourists who meet certain criteria to stay in Thailand for up to nine months without doing a border hop.
The UK removed Thailand from its “travel red list” and announced that vaccinations administered in Thailand will be accepted for quarantine-free entry — if they’re two shots of AstraZeneca, Pfizer-BioNTech, or Moderna; but not Sinovac or Sinopharm. The change is prompting some British residents of Thailand to plan their first trips to the UK since the pandemic began.
Sabotaging the tourism recovery?
The Center for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) plans to open 41 more provinces as inbound-tourism “blue zones” between next month and February 2022. The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) published a list of the selected provinces, but few other details have emerged. Tourism Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn is characteristically bullish on the November 1st launch of sandbox-style programs in Bangkok, Pattaya, Hua Hin, Cha-am, Chiang Mai and the rest of Krabi and Phang Nga provinces, though final decisions are not up to him.
A group of Phuket tourism operators are calling for a simplification of the application process for the Certificate of Entry (COE), a cumbersome clump of paperwork that all inbound travelers are currently required to fill out and submit for a stamp of approval from a Thai embassy before departing for Thailand. Rumor has it that the COE could be scrapped altogether by the end of the year.
Thai tourism operators and foreign residents are crying foul over a government economic panel’s approval of a plan to force all inbound foreign travelers to pay a 500-baht “tourism transformation” fee. The plan has drawn loads of criticism as tourism business owners question the timing of a new inbound travel expense when the tourism industry is desperate for travelers to return.
Perhaps more unsettling is a remark from TAT governor Yuthasak Supasorn that came alongside the new fee announcement. “The additional cost won’t have an impact on tourists as we want to focus on the quality market,” he said, as quoted by Bangkok Post. In a Couchfish piece that breaks down the “tourism transformation” idea, Stuart McDonald calls this “a stupid and offensive statement.”
I couldn’t have put it better.
The implication is that some government officials see high-spending tourists as “quality” while denying the same label to the many budget to midrange travelers who have long been the bedrock of Thailand’s tourism economy. Similarly offensive remarks were recently made by Energy Minister Supattanapong Punmeechaow and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha himself.
As explained by Thai Examiner, a nagging concern is that the government will botch Thailand’s attempt at a 2022 recovery by micro-managing a tourism industry that in the past has coasted along without much state interference.
Rather than a prioritization of “quality tourists” to go with a vague “tourism transformation” and an extremely confusing “four-phase reopening,” many tourism operators want the government to forget about the “sandboxes” and simply open all of Thailand to vaccinated inbound travelers as soon as 70% of the population has been fully inoculated. From there, at least until the tourism market stabilizes, many people would like the government to stay out of the way. 🌴
Thank you for reading Thai Island Times, an independent, reader-supported newsletter sharing the beauty, challenges and distinctive identities of Thai islands and coastal areas.