Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic arrived in early 2020, the Thai tourism industry has been closely monitoring the situation for developments.
A key engine of the country’s economy, the tourism sector has grown significantly over the past decade.
The industry generates huge income for the country, with almost 40 million foreign tourists visiting Thailand in 2019 before the pandemic hit.
In 2019, foreign tourists contributed 1.91 trillion baht and Thai travellers added 1.08 trillion baht for total tourism revenue of almost 3 trillion baht.
A year earlier, Thailand’s tourism revenue was ranked 4th highest in the world after 38.18 million foreign tourists contributed 1.87 trillion baht and domestic travellers clocked 1.07 trillion baht for a total of 2.95 trillion baht.
These figures leave no room to doubt Thailand’s status as a world-class tourism destination.
That reputation is built on a variety of outstanding features, including natural attractions, gastronomy, service quality, and impressive shopping opportunities with knock-on benefits for the retail sector.
Many shopping malls and commercial districts have adapted to become attractive leisure destinations, attracting spending from foreign visitors.
This chic retail trend paid off in 2018, when foreign tourist arrivals hit 38.18 million, generating revenue of 1.87 trillion baht.
Thai tourism has faced many crises over the past two decades – including the 2004 tsunami, SARS, the Great Flood of 2011, and political unrest. Each time it has rebounded quickly, taking only 3-6 months to recover to its previous level.
But nothing could have prepared the industry for Covid-19, which Thai tourism businesses describe as the worst crisis they have ever encountered.
The length, uncertainty, and inability to predict when it will be over make the pandemic an unprecedented calamity for the sector.
In 2020, total tourism revenue plunged 73 per cent to 814 billion baht from the previous year, while foreign tourist arrivals plummeted 83 per cent to 6.69 million.
As a result, income from foreign tourists dropped from 1.91 trillion in 2019 to 330 billion baht in 2020.
Meanwhile, domestic tourism was hit by lockdown measures, resulting in trips by Thai tourists falling 47 per cent to 90.52 million, generating 482 billion baht – a drop of 55 per cent from a year earlier.
A key economic engine like tourism will take at least 2-3 years, or until 2023/24, to recover from the disruption of Covid-19, say analysts.
That recovery depends not only on Thailand’s readiness to welcome back foreign tourists but also on the policies of countries where those foreign tourists live.
Amid the gloom, Thai tourism businesses and workers were struggling in a labyrinth of despair – until the arrival of Covid-19 vaccines this year brought light at the end of the tunnel.
Reopening the country was finally back on the agenda, and the government announced a roadmap to welcoming back fully vaccinated foreign tourists, paving the way for economic recovery.
The Phuket pilot will kick-start that plan. Starting from July 1, Thailand’s largest island will waive quarantine requirements for foreign tourists who have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 under the “Phuket Tourism Sandbox” model.
The reopening will then roll out to nine other areas, namely Krabi, Phang Nga, Surat Thani (Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao), Chonburi (Pattaya), Chiang Mai, Prachuap Khiri Khan (Hua Hin and Cha-am), Buri Ram and Bangkok.
Those areas plan to open for foreign tourists without quarantine in the fourth quarter of the year before the whole country opens in the first quarter of 2022.
However, on June 16 Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha stated that Thailand will fully open within 120 days and tourism centres even earlier.
“The only exception to these guidelines will be if a truly serious situation develops or seems likely to develop, and we will look at those situations on a case-by-case basis,” he said.
The country’s reopening timeline was thus brought forward from January 2022 to October 2021.
Two days later, Tourism and Sports Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn told a meeting of the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) that Prayut’s statement meant any province with no more than 20-30 new cases per day could apply to reopen for foreign tourists.
However, Bangkok would not need to rush to reopen in October if the capital still had 500-600 new cases per day, he added. Each provincial governor could make their own decision on reopening, Phiphat said.
The prime minister’s declaration offered tourism enterprises their first glimpse of light after more than a year in Covid’s shadow.
As well as the Phuket sandbox, the CCSA has launched the “Samui Plus” model to invite foreign tourists back to Surat Thani province. The pilot area of Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao in the province will be ready to reopen for foreign tourists on July 15. Unlike the Phuket sandbox model, it will restrict travel for foreign tourists to sealed routes.
For the first three nights, tourists must stay on their hotel premises.
On the 4th to 7th night, they can go out for sightseeing but must remain within the Koh Samui area. From the 8th to 14th night, they will be able to take a boat to Koh Phangan or Koh Tao.
After 14 nights, foreign tourists will be able to travel to other areas in Thailand.
However, like foreign tourists in Phuket, they must be tested for Covid-19 three times.
Yuthasak Supasorn, governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), added that there are also extension tourism routes linking Phuket to other areas.
First are the sealed routes to 3 areas in Krabi province, namely Phi Phi Islands, Koh Ngai, and Railay. Also available to foreign tourists are routes to Khao Lak and Koh Yao in Phang Nga province.
The extension route scheme will launch in August.
In September, three pilot cities will be reopened: Chiang Mai (Muang, Mae Rim, Mae Taeng and Doi Tao districts), Chonburi (Pattaya City, Bang Lamung and Sattahip districts), and Buri Ram (Muang district and Chang Arena Stadium).
After that, pilot cities such as Bangkok, Cha-am, Hua Hin and other areas or provinces will be reopened starting from October, under the 120-day plan.
“When the prime minister shortened the timeline, it gave opportunities to provinces or cities that are ready to accept foreign tourists before the fourth quarter, which is the high season in Thailand,” said Yuthasak.
“The TAT believes the Tourism’s Ministry and TAT target of 3-4 million foreign tourists this year with tourism revenue of 300 billion baht is now more likely to be achieved,” he added.
Meanwhile the ministry’s target for domestic tourism, which has been hit by the third wave of Covid-19, is 90-100 million visits this year, with income of more than 400 billion baht.
For the year 2022, Tourism Minister Piphat cites estimates of 20 million foreign tourist arrivals, generating income of 1.5 trillion baht, with domestic tourists adding 160 million trips and 700 billion baht. As a result, total tourism revenue next year is expected to reach 2.2 trillion baht.
The big concern of the Tourism and Sports Ministry and the TAT is restructuring of the tourism market to balance its different aspects.
These include foreign and domestic income, tourist numbers and expenditure per person; original and new markets; mass and high-end segments; major and minor cities; high season and low season; and holiday and weekday travel.
Moreover, foundations must be laid for “high-value and sustainable tourism” in compliance with the 13th Plan for National Economic and Social Development Plan and 3 strategies under the National Strategy.
The 3 strategies are “SA” (Safe Travel for All), “SB” “Striking a Balance” in the tourism market structure), and “SOS” (Support Our Stakeholders – helping businesses to adjust to the new pattern of tourism).
Thailand realises it must deploy defensiveness as well as forward-thinking to attract foreign tourists in the new era.
But this mission is already underway, heralding the “next normal” era of Thai tourism in the post-Covid world.