Before the pandemic effectively closed Thailand off to the rest of the world in March of last year, Bangkok’s Kin & Koff Café was perfectly placed to catch the throngs of tourists traipsing past the city’s gilded Grand Palace and its orbit of opulent temples.
In the capital of one of the world’s most popular holiday getaways, the resplendent grounds of the former royal residence were a must-see for most first-time visitors. Then came COVID-19, lockdown and a hard freeze on foreign tourists, decimating a pillar of Thailand’s economy — and the core of Kin & Koff’s client base with it.
So, like many in the business of catering to those tourists, owner Siripong Sanomaiwong welcomed the news that Thailand will start lifting lengthy quarantine mandates for some fully vaccinated foreigners on Nov. 1. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha announced the move Oct. 11 in a televised address.
“I think the government is [acting] the right way to open up because we cannot hide from the virus,” Siripong said on another slow day in his café opposite the palace walls.
“We must live together with the COVID; we must live together … in safety,” he added, reflecting the business community’s general mood of wary resolve.
Risk and reward
In his address, Prayut acknowledged the risks. He said daily COVID cases were “almost certain” to rise with new arrivals but insisted Thailand was prepared and had to cash in on the coming November-March high season having missed out on the last one.
“We will have to track the situation very carefully and see how to contain and live with that situation because I do not think that the many millions who depend on the income generated by the travel, leisure and entertainment sector can possibly afford the devastating blow of a second lost New Year holiday period,” he said.
The World Bank says tourism accounted for 20% of Thailand’s gross domestic product and more than 1 in 5 jobs in 2019, when some 40 million people visited the country. The government says Thailand will be lucky to see 100,000 visitors in 2021 and is aiming for 1 million through this high season.
The Tourism Council of Thailand, an industry body, says the lockdown has cost the country some 3 million tourist-linked jobs. Even so, most Thais may not be on board with the government’s timing.
In an online poll conducted by Thailand’s Suan Dusit Rajabhat University between Oct. 11 and Oct. 14, 60.1% of respondents said the country was not yet ready to reopen to tourists without quarantine mandates. They cited Thailand’s low vaccination rate as the main reason.
While Bangkok and the popular resort island of Phuket have fully vaccinated the large majority of locals, the fully vaccinated rate nationwide only recently topped 40%. New daily COVID cases peaked at nearly 22,000 in mid-August but have yet to dip below 7,000. Thailand has recorded about 1.88 million cases in all.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said local polls can be unreliable but believed Suan Dusit’s latest effort frankly mirrored the popular mood.
“The sentiment on the ground is that the infection numbers are still high and the government’s vaccine management has been inept … [that] lives are still at risk and reopening too soon is still not optimal,” he said.
The government hopes to allay those fears by opening up to only 46 countries at first, including major markets such as the United States and China, much of Europe and some Asian neighbors.
In addition to showing proof of vaccination and a negative test result before departure, visitors must have health insurance covering COVID for up to $50,000, download a tracking application and wait one night in a government-approved hotel for the results of a second test on arrival. If cleared, they will be free to roam the country. If not, they will have to spend more time in a hospital or approved hotel.
Siripong hopes that will be enough for his café to claw back by March about 40% of the business it had before the pandemic, and he’s confident the authorities can keep the virus in check.
Katenaphas Muattong is not so sanguine.
She left her catering job to help her parents run their small restaurant by the palace after the pandemic hit and their two employees had their wages cut and then quit. Tapping into online delivery services helped them survive, but business is still less than a third of what it was.
Katenaphas worries the government may apply the entry rules in what she called “Thai style,” explaining that to mean a lax attitude toward enforcement.
“On one [hand] we should open because business is going down, down,” she said. “But if we don’t have a good plan, we should wait.”
Turning the thoughts over in her mind a moment, she finally sided with the government and said Thailand should take the risk.
Vali Villa owner Val Saopayana is more of an avowed optimist.
Three years ago, the professional artist turned her childhood home into a boutique mid-range hotel a few blocks from Bangkok’s Khaosan Road, another popular tourist haunt packed with bars and clubs that once throbbed with dance music into the early morning hours. With nary a customer in sight one recent Friday afternoon, most of the strip was closed or boarded up, a microcosm of Thailand’s tourist sector writ large.
With Thailand now reopening to foreigners, Val is hopeful about reclaiming at least half of her pre-pandemic business by the end of this season.
“I have a good feeling that we’re going to be able to do it and the whole economy of Thailand is going to be better because I believe in the medical system and they try to do their best,” she said.
“We just hope that it will be back to normal very soon,” she added. “We have to believe and we have to have positive energy, and people are going to come.”
The Association of Thai Travel Agents, another industry body, says “normal” will take a few more years, as some major markets such as China still mandate weeks of quarantine for travelers on their return.
“When you have that amount of quarantine days, it’s going to be a real limit for us. So, I think the opening, while we’re making great progress, it will very much depend on the origin countries’ levels of restrictions and quarantine days as well,” said ATTA board member Pilomrat Isvarphornchai.
She said the association was being “realistic” about the coming high season and forecast a 20% return to pre-pandemic business for inbound travel agencies, at least for those still open. The ATTA’s last member survey found that roughly half of them had closed during the past 19 months of lockdown, some for good.
“In terms of the economy, we are at that point now where we’re going to have to learn how to live with the pandemic, not just in terms of tourism but even opening up domestically, for example with restaurants, with retail stores. It needs to happen now,” Pilomrat said.