By Karla Cripps, CNN
Thailand has relaxed its quarantine restrictions and is reopening to vaccinated travelers arriving from several dozen countries and territories, providing a much-needed boost for the country’s embattled tourism industry.
As of November 1, fully vaccinated travelers who have stayed a minimum of 21 days in one of 63 approved “low risk” countries and territories— including the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, India and Canada — can avoid a lengthy hotel quarantine for the first time in more than 18 months.
Instead, incoming travelers who meet the updated requirements will only need to stay one night in a government-approved hotel while they await the results of a Covid-19 test that will be administered upon arrival. (Visitors under the age of 12 who are traveling with their parents are exempt from the vaccination requirement.)
Fully vaccinated travelers arriving from countries not on the list are eligible to enter through a “sandbox” scheme that requires them to stay in a government-approved hotel or resort in one of 17 “blue” destinations, including Phuket, Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Koh Samui, for seven nights before they will be allowed to travel freely in the country.
Tourists who aren’t fully vaccinated with an approved vaccine must quarantine in a pre-booked, government-approved hotel for 10 days upon arrival.
Prior to the pandemic, tourism contributed around 15% of Thailand’s GDP, according to World Bank figures.
The November 1 reopening comes on the eve of Thailand’s traditional tourism high season. In a statement issued in mid-October, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said the move was needed to allow Thailand to take advantage of travelers hoping to visit during upcoming winter holidays.
“We must act quickly but still cautiously and not miss the opportunity to entice some of the year-end and New Year holiday season travelers … to support the many millions of people who earn a living from our tourism,” he said.
A full list of updated entry requirements, including proof of an insurance policy with Covid-19 coverage for no less than $50,000, can be found on the Tourism Authority of Thailand website.
‘Light at the end of the tunnel’
Early in the pandemic, Thailand reported few locally transmitted Covid-19 cases thanks to strict quarantine on arrival rules.
However, the country was hit by its third and worst wave of infections, which emerged from clusters in several Bangkok nightclubs, in early April.
At the moment, cases are dropping following a lengthy lockdown period, and the country is reporting nearly 9,000 new Covid-19 cases per day on average.
A nationwide vaccine program officially kicked off on June 7. According to CNN’s vaccine tracker, about 42% of Thailand’s population has been fully vaccinated.
Marisa Sukosol Nunbhakdi, president of the Thai Hotels Association, tells CNN Travel the November 1 easing of entry restrictions is an important milestone in the recovery process.
“Finally, hoteliers see the light at the end of the tunnel and are eager and excited for the opening,” she says.
“Timing also coincides with the return of domestic travel recovery. Our government now has a plan and we can start our marketing strategies to win back guests. More importantly, there is now hope, not just for owners and operators, but for the employees as well.”
Marisa notes that “50% of hotels were closed and 50% of employees left the industry,” since the start of the pandemic.
“Of the 860,000 hotel workers before Covid-19, only around 400,000 are left in the industry now,” she says.
“In prepping for November 1 opening, some hotels are rehiring again, but very few; most are waiting for higher demand starting January 2022. The government’s predicting 300,000 incoming travelers per month, in November and December.”
According to local media reports, Airports of Thailand predicts 7,000 passengers will arrive at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport — Thailand’s biggest gateway — on international flights on November 1.
Marisa adds that recovery will also be dependent on the quarantine policies of the source markets.
For instance, though fully vaccinated travelers coming from China are now permitted to visit Thailand without quarantine restrictions, outbound travel is heavily discouraged and they face a lengthy hotel stay after their return home. Prior to the pandemic, Chinese tourists made up 27% of Thailand’s foreign arrivals in 2019, according to research from Thailand’s Krungsri Bank.
“Most countries in Asia still require quarantine for travelers, so initially target travelers will be from US/Europe/Scandinavia, who travel annually to Thailand for the high season,” says Marisa, adding that 60-70% of travelers to Thailand are repeat visitors.
“There is definitely pent-up demand after such a long-term inability to travel.”
The November 1 reopening comes on the heels of several programs launched to aid the country’s tourism industry while cautiously easing entry restrictions.
On July 1 the Thai island of Phuket reopened to vaccinated travelers without quarantine requirements — though they had to stay in an approved hotel or resort — under the “Phuket Sandbox” scheme.
Now, as Thailand eases entry restrictions further, officials in other popular tourism destinations in Asia are watching closely as they shape their own reopening plans.
“[Thailand’s reopening] is an important step as it is one of many case studies for learnings for all destinations within the Southeast Asia region, particularly since the region is a highly interdependent ecosystem,” says Liz Ortiguera, CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA).
“Recovery will be uneven across the region particularly since the situation is constantly evolving, and factors such as new variants, vaccine equity and rollout, and border policies will play an important part in the recovery of travel over the next 12-14 months.
“With the deployment of vaccines and attention to health and safety protocols, destinations across the region have been highly focused on these foundational elements to recovery. They are creating safe zones — safe for the incoming travelers, the tourist-facing staff and the local community.”
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Top image: A woman walks through the arrival gates at Suvarnabhumi International Airport on November 1, 2021. Credit: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP/Getty Images