BANGKOK: Tourism operators and hotels in Thailand have welcomed the government’s new stimulus measure that will allow foreign tourists to visit the country with a special long-stay visa amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.
The special tourist visa or STV is expected to become available from October to Sep 30 next year. Its holders will be able to stay in Thailand for 90 days and to extend the visa twice at a cost of 2,000 Baht (US$63) each time.
The scheme was approved in principle by the Cabinet on Sep 15 as part of the government’s efforts to boost the sluggish economy and tourism sector battered by the global health crisis.
“Any and all visitors coming to Thailand will help to stimulate the hotel sector that goes beyond just brick and mortar in an industry that supports suppliers from fisherman and farmers to tour guides and small businesses,” said Daniel Simon, general manager of Anantara Siam Bangkok Hotel.
“The Thai government’s planned special tourist visa programme is a step in the right direction, but we look forward to more measures which will quickly, but safely, open the kingdom to international travellers once again,” he added.
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The new visa targets tourists with spending power who are willing to undergo 14-day quarantine upon arrival. Once the country reopens, the Thai government expects to welcome 1,200 foreign tourists per month from one to three international flights each week. It also hopes the scheme would inject 12 billion baht (US$380 million) into the economy in a year’s time.
“Obviously, there is no magic bullet to opening the country immediately. So, the STV scheme is one step forward with many more to come. It also allows the residents of Thailand to get accustomed to the idea that there is a way to start bringing tourists back to the country safely, albeit with a rather challenging application process,” said Nick Downing, general manager of The Siam Hotel.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Thailand hard, especially its tourism and hospitality sectors. Its GDP contracted by 12.2 per cent in the second quarter of 2020, with the total revenue from tourism dropping by 97.1 per cent, according to the Office of the National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDC).
Last month, NESDC revised the expected contraction of the Thai economy in 2020 to between -7.8 per cent and -7.3 per cent due to various factors, including as a sharp decline in number and revenue from foreign tourists, and “the severe recession of global economy and merchandised trade”.
Although the STV scheme is broadly welcomed, small tourism operators doubt that revenue from foreign tourists could reach them.
“I think the benefits may not reach small entrepreneurs. As long as the government is unable to control the gap between us and capitalists, I think the scheme will hardly benefit small operators,” said Pornpak Rakjan, manager of tour company Phuket Tour Holiday.
The business did not receive any help from the government amid the ongoing health crisis, she added.
“I want the government to come here and take care of us. I want them to establish provincial units that specifically manage the COVID-19 impact on entrepreneurs, especially small ones.”
HOW TO APPLY FOR THAILAND’S SPECIAL TOURIST VISA
Foreign tourists wishing to apply for the special tourist visa are required to do so with a travel agent, which will work with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) in obtaining approval from the Thai foreign ministry.
Applicants will have to indicate in the application form an Alternative State Quarantine hotel in Thailand for the compulsory 14-day quarantine upon arrival. According to the Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration, there are 74 such hotels nationwide, including 69 in Bangkok and five others in Burirum, Chonburi and Phuket.
To complete the application, foreign tourists will also need to provide flight details, identify their post-quarantine accommodation, and purchase medical insurance for their stay in Thailand with a minimum coverage plan worth USD100,000.
If successful, they can collect a Certificate of Entry (COE) at the Thai embassy in their country. They are also required to obtain a fit-for-travel health certificate and a medical certificate stating they are not infected with COVID-19, issued no longer than 72 hours before departure.
Upon their arrival in Thailand, foreign tourists will have to undergo health screening. If they test positive, they will be transferred to a hospital. If not, they will be granted a special tourist visa and proceed to the quarantine facility of their choice.
Once the quarantine is over, STV holders can travel in Thailand. But they will need to install a COVID-19 contact tracing app.
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Despite the 14-day quarantine requirement, hoteliers are hopeful the stimulus would benefit the accommodation sector, given the potential for long-stay visitors from Europe.
According to Bruno Huber, general manager of Mövenpick BDMS Wellness Resort Bangkok, European tourists tend to spend a few months at a time in Thailand and are thus likely to be fine with the quarantine period.
However, the fact that they will need to arrange their own trip to Thailand, either by a chartered plane or a private aircraft, could dampen the interest and affect the revenue target.
“Private or purpose-chartered flights would be too prohibitively expensive and greatly reduce the number of potential guests. A functioning and attainable commercial flight solution is integral towards any success,” Huber told CNA.
If commercial flights return, he added, the revenue number projected by the government is “attainable”.
“WILL THERE BE A SECOND WAVE?”
The STV scheme may be broadly welcomed by the hospitality and tourism sectors, but there are concerns among operators over the potential health risks.
Thailand has reported more than 3,500 cases of COVID-19 since the outbreak started, with 59 deaths. Currently, 117 remain in hospitals. But once the country reopens for foreign tourists, the situation could change.
“I believe this scheme would help improve the economy because tourists are one of the factors that help circulate the revenue in Thailand. But I’m also concerned,” said Pichanan Kongchana from Roast8ry Lab, a café in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand.
Will there be a second wave?
Before the pandemic, most of her customers were foreign tourists. So when the international travel ban kicked in, the cafe lost most of its clients and was forced to close for three months. Although it has recently reopened to local customers, the business still suffers from a major drop in revenue.
“We want tourists to visit,” Pichanan said. “But I want the government to issue them some sort of document they can show to us. This way, we won’t have to be worried.”
As of Sep 25, Thailand has carried out 977,854 COVID-19 tests nationwide, according to Taweesin Visanuyothin, spokesperson of the COVID-19 Situation Administration Centre. He said in a press conference on Monday (Sep 28) the country needs to relax its disease control measures in order to allow the economy to recover before urging the public to remain vigilant.
"Although our country needs to relax, people must be disciplined," Taweesin said. "If each person is disciplined, the relaxation will continue to work and our economy will grow stronger."