What next for tourism sector?
With the deadline for the estimated 150,000 stranded foreign tourists in the kingdom to renew their visas having passed yesterday, it remains to be seen how many will continue to stay in the country either legally, having extended their right to stay, or illegally, facing arrest and jail as threatened by the Immigration Bureau.
However, what is not in doubt is that Thailand’s ailing tourism industry, until recently estimated to contribute up to 20% of the nation’s GDP, cannot survive on those who were able to overcome a number of much-criticised hurdles (in particular, requiring a letter from their embassy) to extend their stay.
Some foreign business owners have also complained that as the pandemic has forced them to scale down their operations, they too face a problem renewing their visas as they no longer meet requirements pertaining to the employment of a minimum number of Thai nationals.
Thailand’s undoubted success in all but eliminating Covid-19 infections within its borders may ultimately end up being a hindrance as much as a help when it comes to rehabilitating this key sector.
Previously, the Prayut chan-o-cha government mulled long-stay visas under the so-called “Phuket model” special tourist visa (STV) scheme which, if implemented, would limit visitors to certain provinces. While the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) insists there is high interest from overseas tour agents, a number of business operators still lack confidence regarding practicality.
Meanwhile, the government is considering shortening the compulsory two-week state quarantine to seven days for some groups of foreign visitors. More details for this proposal will be available this week.
As long as other stringent measures accompany it, a shorter quarantine period could be a useful option to help this major economic sector out of stagnation.
Many countries that also rely on the income generated by tourists, and which have suffered far higher death tolls, such as France, Spain and Portugal, are already accepting arrivals based on negative test results and a two-week prior history free of exposure to confirmed cases.
Tomorrow, the European Union is set to announce its latest set of guidelines to reactivate tourism, which will include coronavirus PCR tests both at origin and destination, to allow businesses and citizens to further return to a modicum of normality with regard to foreign travel.
For Thailand, the much-trumpeted “travel bubbles” with nations largely free of infection have yet to emerge and the only options being openly talked about are for medical tourists who may barely spend a baht outside their hospital of choice and long-term visitors whose numbers can be expected to be limited.
The government needs to consult all stakeholders before issuing any guidelines to ensure practicality and acceptance. The constantly changing guidelines and list of destinations that require self-isolation on return have caused confusion among travellers in countries such as the United Kingdom, and this is something our government must strive to avoid.
Indeed, the Immigration Bureau’s hard line with the 150,000 tourist visa holders may also be driven by a desire to crack down on those who were illegally working in the country on tourist visas. It’s well known that the pandemic has effectively brought “visa runs” to an end.
The agency should, however, be cautious when following up on its threats of arrest and jail as there may still be real tourists who have been forced stay longer in the country without proper documentation for technical reasons.
At the same time, immigration chiefs should work closely with business operators to finally put an end to practices that have seen workers on the wrong type of visa put through a torrid few months.
Back to tourism, in order to restart the engine of this major sector while a vaccine is not available, the government must examine all possibilities to keep Thailand safe, through stringent measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing, as well effective screening of arrivals.
One option could be to trial short-stay visas with revised rules in order to test the country’s readiness to tackle sporadic outbreaks of Covid-19 as it may not be feasible to halt regular tourism until a vaccine is found.
However, whatever path the government decides upon, the rules must be clear in advance to avoid confusion.