THAILAND has been widely hailed as a COVID-19 success story as the country managed to stop the spread of the virus in its early days through rigorous contact tracing using a “thousand epidemiological teams” across the country. Now, the country is poised to re-open for tourists, with a focus on domestic tourism, as the government tries to revive a major contributor to the Thai economy hit by the pandemic.

“Like everywhere else, Thailand’s tourism sector was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of foreign tourists in Thailand may plunge as much as 25.8 million to 14 million in 2020. This is the lowest rate in the past four years,” the Tourism Authority of Thailand told BusinessWorld in an e-mail interview on June 19.

This is a grim prospect for a country whose tourism receipts account for almost 14% of the country’s gross domestic product, according to the Bangkok Post.

As of this writing, the Kingdom of Thailand has recorded 3,147 COVID-19 cases, 3,018 of whom recovered while 58 died.

HSBC Global Research, a research house focusing on emerging markets, predicted in early June that the Kingdom of Thailand is poised to lose $47 billion in tourism revenues for 2020.

“Tourism is a key growth driver in the country, and it has taken a huge hit, but the health and safety of our citizens and visitors are our priority. We are confident that we can revive Thai tourism, and recover our losses in the long run,” the tourism authority said.

From January to May, Thailand’s international tourist arrivals dropped by 59.97% which meant a loss of 330 million baht (approximately $10.6 million).

The World Tourism Organization noted in its May impact assessment report that domestic tourism may recover faster than international travel and Thailand is looking to persuade 6 million Thais who had plans to go overseas to stay and travel within the country instead.

The tourism authority expects domestic trips to double as some travelers might travel more than once. In the e-mail, they cited a survey by the Suan Dusit Rajabhat University which said that “over 75% of Thais agreed that they would like the Thai people to tour their own country first before going elsewhere.”

And in order to support tourism, the Thai government has approved a 22.4 billion baht (approximately $709 million) stimulus for domestic tourism including a “moral support” program to help finance holiday travel for 1.2 million health volunteers and officials of sub-district hospitals. They will be given a subsidy of 2,000 baht ($64) per tourist for at least an overnight trip.

The government will also be subsidizing “5 million nights of hotel accommodations at 40% of normal room rates, but the subsidy will be limited to 3,000 ($97) baht per night for up to five nights,” the authority told BusinessWorld in the e-mail. The remaining 60% will be shouldered by the traveler.

There will also be subsidies for other expenses including food and admissions fees for attractions capped at 600 baht ($19) per person per day for up to five days.

They also allotted 2 billion baht ($64.5 million) to subsidize “domestic flight fares, inter-provincial fares, and car rental fees” for 2 million people. The amount is said to cover up to 40% of expenses but capped at 1,000 baht per tourist ($32)

In Mid-June, there were reports that the country is opening up select destinations for a limited number of people from select countries that are considered low risk in order to help international tourism recover. These so-called “travel bubbles” initially included a list of countries such as New Zealand and China, but according to a June 19 story by The Bangkok Post, Thailand “is in no rush to open up travel bubbles as more thought is needed into putting the concept into practice,” quoting the head of security of the pandemic response team.

“[The] arrangement is still up for discussion, and nothing has been finalized yet,” the Tourism Authority of Thailand said in the e-mail before adding that the idea for travel bubbles was first introduced by the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand.

Aside from the stimulus, the government also placed safety measures in tourism establishments including a registration system that supports contact tracing. The government also asks people to “ear a face mask, wash your hands frequently, keep a meter away from other people, book ahead to ensure a time slot, and avoid paying in cash,” according to a press release.

In the end, while the pandemic has undoubtedly been a huge hit to the tourism industry, the Tourism Authority of Thailand said “the health and safety of everyone is our topmost priority. We can recover in the long run.” — Zsarlene B. Chua