Tourist-favorite Thailand recovery lags behind COVID rule changes

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Tourists visit Maya Bay after Thailand reopened its world famous beach after closing it for more than three years to allow its ecosystem to recover from the impact of overtourism, in Krabi province, in Thailand, January 3, 2022. Picture taken January 3, 2022. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha/File Photo

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BANGKOK, April 29 (Reuters) – When 23-year-old Norwegian Anastasia Johansen and her boyfriend were planning their first holiday in two years, they considered going to Thailand but chose neighboring Vietnam instead, for its entry rules easier on the coronavirus.

“The regulations to enter Thailand… were complicated for me and we had to pay for the heavy PCR test,” Johansen said.

Thailand, one of the world’s top tourist destinations before the pandemic, was among the first nations in Asia to reopen its borders to vaccinated visitors last year with limited quarantine standards, hailed at the time as a model of reopening.

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But as regional peers eased entry requirements, Thailand clung to a cumbersome process.

“Whichever (country) offers simple, smooth and less complicated procedures, I like that,” Johansen said.

Tourism professionals say Thailand’s complicated entry rules are now holding back recovery in an industry that contributed 12% of GDP before the pandemic.

Forward bookings for 2022 show Thailand reaching 25% of pre-pandemic levels, behind levels of 72% and 65% each for Singapore and the Philippines.

Many blame the Thailand Pass’ pre-entry approval system, which can take up to seven days, although the government has recently promised to streamline it.

“Bureaucracy is killing us,” said Bill Barnett, managing director of hospitality consultancy C9 Hotelworks.

“If you’re in Singapore and want to come to Thailand for the weekend, it’s not easy. Those short-term trips are important.”

American Kiran Stallone, who is visiting family in Thailand, said obtaining the Thailand Pass requires proof of vaccination, insurance coverage of at least $20,000 and reservations at a qualifying hotel, all submitted on a Thai government website.

“The government website was difficult to navigate and I had to seek outside help,” Stallone added.

Stallone said he was told to avoid certain steps known to cause submission issues that would delay his application.

The website does not allow users to save progress or return to previous pages and rejects PDF files.

A Facebook group on the Thailand Pass has reached 90,000 members, with would-be travelers asking anxious questions about flight changes, new entry rules and frustration over rejected applications.

Similar forums have also sprung up on sites such as TripAdvisor.

Thailand received 39.9 million visitors in 2019 when Bangkok, the capital, was named the most visited city in the world.

That year, Singapore and the Philippines recorded 19.1 million and 8.26 million arrivals respectively.

Thailand is aiming to attract 5-10 million visitors this year, but critics call its Thailand Pass system an unnecessary obstacle.

“It’s not competitive for Thailand and complicated for travelers (…) who lose all flexibility,” hotel tycoon William Heinecke, chairman of Minor International Pcl (MINT.BK), told Reuters.

An approved Thailand Pass can only be used one week before or after the date shown.

The tourism board also said the system’s requirement for individually filed documents made it more difficult for tour operators to bring in groups.

Thailand’s coronavirus task force spokesman Taweesin Visanuyothin said tourist arrivals were increasing as measures were eased and acknowledged domestic infections outnumbered those from abroad.

However, Thailand’s phased approach to loosening the rules has also caused confusion.

Entry of vaccinated tourists with limited quarantine resumed in February after a brief suspension of the Omicron variant.

At the time, travelers had to take at least three COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests; one each before departure, upon arrival and on the fifth day of their stay.

In March, this final test was replaced by a rapid antigen test, and insurance coverage was increased from $50,000 to $20,000. In April, the pre-departure PCR test was abolished.

Starting next month, $10,000 insurance is required, but testing for vaccinated travelers and advance hotel reservations have been dropped. Read more

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Reporting by Chayut Setboonsarng; Additional reporting by Phuong Nguyen in Hanoi; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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