Thailand Risks Becoming the Next Seychelles as Tourists Return

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Passengers arrive at the Phuket International Airport on July 1.Photographer: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP/Getty Images

Less than 100 days before it plans to throw open its borders to international visitors, Thailand is in the grip of a worsening Covid outbreak and a sluggish vaccine rollout.

It’s a position familiar to other travel-reliant countries facing the unenviable task of rescuing crucial tourism industries decimated by 18 months of pandemic while guarding against the risk that an influx of international travelers could inflame the spread of the virus.

That’s been the case in the Maldives and Seychelles, tropical-island paradises that have seen record surges in infections since opening their borders despite having vaccinated about 70% of their populations. In contrast, at current rates it will take Thailand almost a year to reach that level.

Before the pandemic, tourism contributed about 20% of Thailand’s gross domestic product — double the global average. The pandemic-sized hole in the industry has impacted more than 7 million workers, ranging from street-food hawkers to taxi drivers and hotel-room cleaners to tour guides. One of the country’s main sources of foreign currency has dried up in the process.

That makes opening the border a “calculated risk” worth taking for the government. Thailand “can’t wait for a time when everyone is fully vaccinated or for when the world is free of the virus,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha said last month when he unveiled the Oct. 14 reopening date. While infections may rise, “the economic needs of the people” must be taken into consideration, he said.

“We can’t close the borders, especially in Asia with the sheer size of the population,” said Bill Barnett, managing director at hospitality consultancy C9 Hotelworks Ltd. “These are subsistence economies and they can’t survive long term like this. At the end of the day, you have to put rice in people’s bowls.”

In a precursor to the broader opening, vaccinated tourists were this month allowed to travel to the resort island of Phuket without needing to quarantine. As of July 15, more than 5,400 people arrived there, with 10 of them testing positive for the coronavirus.

Prayuth himself had to isolate at home for a week after coming into close contact with a person who later tested positive for coronavirus during events held to mark Phuket’s reopening. On Thursday, Prayuth attended an event virtually to mark the reopening of Samui, another resort island, where visitors only have to quarantine for three days.

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