Opening up is the only way to rescue Thai tourism

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Thailand’s world-class tourism industry is in a deep, coronavirus-induced coma, close to death.

No life support is currently available. Pandemic paranoia has gripped the nation, freezing our bio-security risk management in full containment mode, meaning zero tolerance for local Covid-19 transmission.

The socio-economic, and some might add political, impacts of this crisis are huge. According to Fitch Solutions, if both direct and indirect contributions are included, tourism represents some 22% of GDP, and as much as 25% of employment, most of it in the unprotected informal sector where unemployment could reach 4-6 million.

This closed-door public health security policy is not sustainable. The Bank of Thailand says there can be no recovery without tourism, and no recovery of tourism without foreign tourists who account for at least 65 to 70% of the total industry. To open or not to open?

If the answer is the Special Tourist Visa (STV), with its 14-day quarantine, Thailand’s tourism industry will die. Only a quarantine-free welcome can deliver the numbers needed to resuscitate the industry. The STV is allowing 40 tourists a day to enter; in 2019 daily arrivals averaged nearly 110,000.

How to open safely? This is the great conundrum facing Thailand and other countries around the world.

We cannot wait for vaccines. They stand no chance of eliminating the disease globally. A more realistic solution comes from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) European Director: “The end of the pandemic is the moment that we as a community are going to learn how to live with this pandemic.”

Enter the tourism industry’s new normal: Learning to live with Covid-19. This means accepting there might be local transmission. It means quarantine-free entry for tourists, albeit under controlled conditions.

If we make this policy shift, Thailand will not be alone. Many governments and components of the international travel and tourism value chain are already rushing to construct the bio-security infrastructure necessary to rescue the industry from a global collapse.

The first step must be to undo the pandemic paranoia conditioning affecting the whole country so people understand why we have to manage the risks and how we can do this safely.

The second step is for the government to recognise the new normal requires maximum flexibility, a dramatic change of mindset, from creating barriers to easing access.

One can identify two types of visitors for the foreseeable future: Those who are willing to accept and pay for 14-day quarantine, and those who are not.

For the former, the doors should be flung wide open. No restrictions on countries of origin, no pre-paid accommodation and Covid-19 health insurance only for the quarantine period. The only requirement: A negative Covid-19 test less than 72 hours prior to flying. Visas-on-arrival for as long as you want should be the order of the day.

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