What will it take for Thailand to reopen inbound tourism without quarantine?

Island Watch #5

One year after Thailand closed its borders to the world, speculation about when the country will fully reopen to inbound tourism is boiling over as government officials and industry leaders float their ideas on how to get it done. Let’s wade into this murky sea of info and analyze the challenges in a careful look at the big question: when will Thailand scrap quarantine for travelers from abroad?

Vaccinating the Thai population and getting the tourism industry on track to recovery are two interwoven aspects of one monumental task. Thailand has done relatively well at containing Covid-19 so far, recording 27,594 cases and 90 deaths as of publication time, although 85% of those cases surfaced over the past few months and the virus is currently spreading. Still, the largest challenges lie ahead.

A spokesperson for the government’s Center for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) said on March 10th that October 1st is being discussed as a potential date to start allowing some vaccinated travelers into the country without quarantine. This date is also part of the Tourism Ministry’s new four-phase proposal, which takes a gradual approach to reopening. No decisions have been made yet.

Tinkering with quarantine has already begun. Well-heeled tourists can now go golfing or relax on a beach or stay on a yacht during their two weeks in quarantine, but most inbound travelers still get cooped up in less luxurious lodgings. A reduction of quarantine to seven days for vaccinated travelers and 10 days for those who test negative for Covid-19 could become a reality soon. But the fact remains that few foreigners want to visit Thailand if any quarantine is required at all.

To boil it down, one or more of these things needs to happen for Thailand to reopen to inbound travelers without quarantine:

  • Vaccinate a majority of the Thai population.

  • Globally accepted studies determine that vaccinated people pose a minimal risk of transmitting the virus.

  • Accept some risk of viral spread from vaccinated travelers.

  • Allow travelers from only certain countries; and/or allow travelers to only access certain destinations during their first week or two in country.

This article digs into potential advantages and pitfalls of each of these broad possibilities. My aim is not to support some positions on reopening over others, but rather to comb through the overwhelming amount of obstacles involved and paint a detailed picture of just how daunting a task Thailand faces.

Boarding a local flight in Trang. While domestic travel has been allowed for much of the last year in Thailand, it has largely left out the thousands of businesses which relied mainly on foreign tourism before the pandemic.

Pressure campaign

The tourism industry heavyweights behind a campaign dubbed Open Thailand Safely are asking the government to fully scrap quarantine for vaccinated inbound travelers by July 1st, even if it risks new outbreaks. Their inclination to help the struggling tourism sector — and themselves — is understandable.

But without a solution that adequately protects the Thai public from the virus, the name ‘Open Thailand Safely’ is a contradiction in terms. Dismissing quarantine as “old thinking” does not change the fact that quarantine is still the only (almost) airtight way to stop travelers from spreading the virus among the Thai population. As far as we know today, vaccines protect only the vaccinated.

Therein lies the fundamental error of the campaign: presupposing that vaccinated people pose minimal risk of spreading the virus. No medical or science personnel are publicly backing the campaign. Instead it argues that a report in the science journal Nature, presumably the one by Smritri Mallapaty, concludes that vaccinated people are, in the campaign’s words, “much less likely to spread the virus.” But that article only discusses preliminary analyses while making it clear that the transmissibility of vaccinated carriers of Covid-19 “is difficult to measure.”

Published 10 days after the Nature report, an analysis by James Hamblin in The Atlantic concludes that “as long as a lot of virus is still circulating in a community and many people remain unvaccinated, the mere fact that some have protection will not mean that it’s responsible for them to forgo precautions and do whatever they like.” I’d file visiting a foreign country as a tourist under ‘doing whatever I like.’

“The negative economic, social, and psychological impact on around 4 million unemployed Thai people has been massive,” writes Ken Scott, a key voice behind Open Thailand Safely. He’s absolutely right. The tragic impacts of the pandemic on financial and mental health — including an increasing suicide rate in Thailand — should not be dismissed. But the threat of the virus is also real, as evidenced by hard-hit countries in the region like Indonesia and the Philippines. I wonder how many Thai people would concur with Scott that “we have to learn to live with a measure of Covid-19,” which he refers to as “the implicit assumption of the campaign.”

Many Thais remain weary of the virus, my elderly neighbor included. In a country where perhaps 5 to 10% of the workforce relied mainly on foreign (as opposed to domestic) tourism before the pandemic, it’s not clear that a majority of Thais are in a rush to drop quarantine for vaccinated travelers. Many still support a cautious approach, be it due to medical, environmental or other concerns.

With so many unanswered questions and so much misinformation about this whole complex situation, confusion is widespread.

If vaccinated foreign travelers are allowed into Thailand without quarantining and there is no solid evidence that vaccination stops transmission of the virus, would unvaccinated Thais be afraid to sit next to a foreigner on a train?

Beach bubbles

The Tourism Ministry is currently poking around the edges of reopening to inbound tourism with ideas like ‘area quarantine’ and ‘Andaman sandbox,’ both aiming to provide vaccinated inbound travelers the freedom to move around on a specific beach or island (for example) during their initial three to 10 days in the country. These proposals follow similar ideas from the Tourism Ministry in the past, such as the ‘Phuket model,’ which never made it past the starting gate.

Some tourism industry leaders in Phuket, Ko Samui and Pattaya are pushing for tourism workers in their areas to be prioritized for vaccination. By October, their hope is to become ‘islands of immunity.’ Supporters frame it as a matter of survival, pointing out how their local economies are heavily reliant on foreign tourism.

The Tourism Ministry’s ‘Andaman sandbox’ proposal adds Railay, Khao Lak, Ko Tao, Ko Phangan and possibly parts of Bangkok and Chiang Mai to the list of potential quarantine-free containment zones for inbound travelers. The inclusion of Khao Lak is surprising given how the governor of Phang Nga province has been one of the most cautious of Thailand’s 77 provincial governors so far.

According to both proposals, vaccinated travelers would be free to go anywhere in Thailand after spending around 10 days enjoying their ‘area quarantine’ or ‘sandbox’ destinations. To make this sort of idea possible, tourism leaders in each destination want to inoculate at least 70% of the local populations by October. If allowed, they are ready to purchase vaccines without the government’s help.

But so many questions arise.

Do the vaccines come from the government or the private sector, which is currently barred from buying vaccines? If from the government, why should a tourism worker in Phuket access a vaccine before, say, a fresh market vendor in Bangkok or a migrant worker in Mae Sot? In ‘sandbox’ destinations, does a noodle vendor get prioritized for vaccination along with a hotel receptionist? What about the noodle vendor’s children? If the receptionist or the noodle vendor needs to rush home to, say, Sisaket, to deal with a family emergency, are they allowed? If so, does their family in Sisaket get vaccinated as well? Potential complications are myriad.

To me, all of these ‘beach bubble’ ideas seem like a bunch of tomfoolery compared to what matters most right now: mass vaccination.

The vertical cliffs of Railay in Krabi province ensure that the entire cape is only accessible by boat, which could make it suitable for ‘area quarantine.’ Even so, the logistical challenges would be numerous.

Vaccination uncertainty

The most reliable way for Thailand to safely reopen is to vaccinate most of the Thai population. Unfortunately, this goal appears to be a long way off.

To start with, the Thai public may not be as receptive to vaccination as previously thought. More than 50% of respondents to a recent Bangkok University poll “said they would rather wait and see if other people suffer any side effects.” The reluctance of some countries to administer AstraZeneca vaccines is further weakening confidence, even though Thailand cleared its use after delaying jabs for officials.

Several residents of Samut Songkhram tell us they opted not to sign up for vaccination when visited by public health workers yesterday. When asked why, they cite a lack of safety assurances, a lack of clear info about side effects, and media reports about vaccines causing dangerous physical reactions in some people.

Less than 100,000 people have been vaccinated in Thailand so far. The plan is to inoculate 10 million per month starting in June, but this apparently hinges on Siam Bioscience’s ability to mass produce AstraZeneca vaccines via technology transfer at its metro Bangkok facilities. Siam Bioscience is untested when it comes to mass producing vaccines, and the firm has been secretive about its processes.

If Siam Bioscience comes through, the government would have enough AstraZeneca doses for 31.5 million people and enough Sinovac doses for another 3.5 million by year’s end. If authorities are currently seeking vaccines from other sources, they have kept those negotiations secret. The government has declined vaccine offers from India and the World Health Organization. The Health Minister says he wants to let private hospitals and other firms purchase vaccines independently, but no one outside the government’s most inner reaches knows when or if this will happen.

If the government does not secure more vaccines but allows the private sector to buy enough for 5 to 10 million people, and the mass vaccination rollout goes as planned, then a little over half of Thailand’s 70 million people could be inoculated by year’s end. Again, that is only if things go precisely as planned.

Getting bogged down

Anyone who is familiar with Thai bureaucracy knows that things rarely happen fast or perfectly smooth inside government agencies. While this is little more than a quirky annoyance at the immigration or motor vehicles offices, it is cause for concern when it comes to the largest vaccination program in the country’s history.

Take for example the government’s two financial stimulus programs over the past year. The first was so poorly organized that angry, desperate crowds descended on the Finance Ministry, where one woman drank rat poison in protest. More recently, large crowds of mostly elderly and low-income people waited days trying to sign up for government aid from the few banks that were equipped to provide it. The government will need to do a whole lot better with a mass vaccination program.

Other details could weigh on reopening plans as well.

Will Thailand allow travelers in without quarantine before ‘vaccine passports’ have been agreed upon worldwide? When and how will the dozens of state-approved quarantine hotels morph back into ordinary lodgings? Will vaccinated travelers still need to be tested? If a traveler is vaccinated and asymptomatic, but tests positive for the virus, will they be quarantined? If vaccines have not yet been approved for children before reopening, will families with kids need to quarantine?

Each of these questions will require careful planning. At the decision-making helm is a Prime Minister who recently became so impatient with questions from reporters that he sprayed hand sanitizer at them while walking out of a press conference. The former coup leader is also distracted by anti-government protests, trials of activists, persistent Covid-19 outbreaks, the unrest in neighboring Myanmar and a Cabinet reshuffle made necessary when three ministers were found guilty of sedition.

Most importantly, how do a majority of Thai people feel about reopening? Tourism industry leaders in places like Phuket and Ko Samui get so much attention that it’s easy to forget about the butcher in Phetchaburi, the songthaew driver in Nakhon Si Thammarat, the teacher in Satun and all of the other Thais who have little to no vested interest in foreign tourism. They should not be overlooked.

A leap of faith

A premature reopening like the one proposed by the Open Thailand Safely campaign could be disastrous if even a few inbound travelers spread the virus. A slip like that could provoke a tide of xenophobia, prompting some Thai communities to ban all foreign travelers out of fear. If you think that sounds hyperbolic, consider that villages on Ko Chang (Trat) and in Prachuap Khiri Khan, among other places, barred all outsiders from entering due to virus concerns in recent months.

On the other hand, it’s staggering to think about the economic destruction that the pandemic has inflicted on Thailand’s tourism industry. Successful businesses, stable careers and life savings have been wiped out, en masse. This means that at some point, be it in six months or a year, Thailand has little choice but to take a leap of faith and reopen the country in full. Yes, even if the virus is still lingering.

Given all of these points and my instincts about how things tend to unroll in Thailand, I will hesitantly offer my predictions about when inbound foreign travelers will be allowed into the country without quarantining:

  • November 2021 for vaccinated travelers from certain countries, possibly China, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam and other nearby countries with minimal cases of Covid-19. I reckon that just about everyone else will need to spend at least three to seven days in hotel isolation until the end of the year.

  • February 2022 for most, if not all, vaccinated travelers. I see this as an optimistic forecast. Any number of hiccups within and/or outside Thailand could delay a (more or less) full reopening until later next year. But the pressure from the tourism industry to salvage next ‘high season’ will be intense.

Of course, I’m merely a travel writer so please don’t read too much into my predictions. Believe in the ‘Andaman sandbox’ if you want. I will keep you updated on new developments related to Thailand’s vaccination and reopening programs in the bi-weekly Island Wrap and in subsequent reports like this one, if and when the situation calls for it. I hope to see old and new friends back here soon. 🌴