Thailand is welcoming its first wave of quarantine-free visitors in 18 months as hundreds of vaccinated foreign tourists arrive in Bangkok.
Seeking to resurrect its pandemic-ravaged tourism economy, Thailand’s government has given the green light to tourists vaccinated against COVID-19 from more than 60 countries, including Australia, New Zealand, the United States and China.
Several European countries are also on the list, with officials hoping to capitalise on travellers from the northern hemisphere escaping winter.
Thailand has for the past 18 months enforced strict pandemic entry rules that have been criticised in the travel industry for being too onerous.
Before the pandemic, tourism accounted for about 12 per cent of Thailand’s GDP and its capital was the world’s most-visited city.
The crisis has cost Thailand about three million tourism-dependent jobs and an estimated $A66 billion a year in revenue.
Thai officials tested the waters with the reopening of the resort island of Phuket in July, allowing fully vaccinated tourists to skip the then-mandatory two-week quarantine provided they stay on the island, where tourism accounts for 90 per cent of the local economy.
However, the ‘Phuket Sandbox’ was less popular than officials had hoped, with arrivals to the island in July at just one per cent of pre-pandemic levels.
Under the new national program, arrivals must spend their first night in a pre-approved hotel and receive a negative COVID-19 test before they are able to travel freely to the rest of the country.
The return will be relatively slow. The finance ministry predicts just 180,000 foreign arrivals this year and seven million next year, compared with some 40 million in 2019.
The majority of Thailand’s 1.9 million infections and more than 19,000 coronavirus-related fatalities have been recorded since April. Around 42 per cent of the 72 million population has been vaccinated.