Chinese wave incoming as Tourism Minister Phiphat again changes tack to save the industry

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New plan is to recreate Thailand as a playground for Chinese visitors followed later by other Asian tourists beginning in 2021. The news is not good for western visitors but it is, of course, yet another in a long list of initiatives that so far have amounted to nothing while Thailand’s former hiving tourist hotspots have been reduced to ghost towns and those employed left queueing at food lines. In the meantime, the Maldives reopened to tourism in mid-July without any restrictions whatsoever and is boasting 100% hotel occupancy rates as tourism on the island country in the Arabian Sea is booming. Many are former regular visitors to Thailand who have been forced to look elsewhere.

The Thai Tourism Minister, Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn, has now prioritised a plan to allow quarantine free access to the kingdom to 22 Chinese regions reputedly free from the Covid 19 virus at the beginning of the new year. The latest plan envisages up to 11 million visitors in 2021. It comes after the shambolic handling of a much-hyped plan to reopen tourism to a group of 120 Chinese tourists visiting Phuket on the basis of the Special Tourist Visa programme after it was revealed, in recent days, that not a single visa application had been made to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from China. The party is now expected in Phuket later this week.

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The latest plan from the Minister of Tourism and Sports, Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn, foresees the return of mass-market tourism to Thailand in 2021 from 22 Covid 19 free regions in China with a population of over 800 million people. Minister Phiphat suggests that this should see at least 11 million visitors to the kingdom in 2021 generating ฿540 billion.

There has been another sudden change in Thailand’s thinking and plans to reopen to mass tourism.

After weeks of chaos and confusion regarding the Special Tourist Visa programme and what appears to be miscommunication between Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Thailand’s Tourism Authority, there was another major announcement last Thursday.

This one was made by Thailand’s Minister of Tourism and Sports, Mr Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn to New York-based international financial network, Bloomberg and reported on the 16th October.

New initiative comes after the visit by Chinese Foreign Minister on Wednesday and Thursday to Bangkok

This comes a day after positive talks between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and the Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha on Thursday, October 15th, just hours after the government of Thailand heralded a State of Severe Emergency in Bangkok and cleared student-led protesters from outside Government House.

Addressing concerns about the ongoing unrest in Thailand and the new crackdown, Mr Phiphat said this: ‘I’m concerned, but I’m confident that an understanding can be reached and it won’t become violent.’

New travel corridor with China to reignite Chinese mass tourism to the kingdom from 2021

It is now being reported that Thailand will aim to establish a travel corridor between regions in China and the kingdom to allow mass tourism to resume into Thailand from the communist country without quarantine.

The incoming tourists will be subject to a Covid 19 test and be required to use a smart app social tracking device developed by the Ministry of Digital Economy.

Minister Phiphat told reporters that the plan would follow and be dependent on the initial success of the Special Tourist Visa scheme which offers extended but strictly controlled entry into the Kingdom including a mandatory and expensive 14-day stay in the alternative state quarantine system.

This scheme is also subject to clearance and processing of all applicants through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which is reported to be severely constrained in its ability to process large numbers of applicants.

The minister also suggested that a similar offering could be made to other Asian countries, in due course, such as Japan, South Korea or Singapore if this new tactic works.

Bad news for western tourists

For western tourists who have regularly holidayed in Thailand, the news is not good as both Europe and the United States are currently in the grip of a second wave of Covid 19 with even predictions of a third or fourth wave as authorities struggle to control the pandemic.

However, Mr Phiphat, whose proposals to restart Thai tourism since March, have invariably ended in a stalemate with ongoing negotiations with the powerful Covid 19 Situation Administration Centre or postponements, was bullish when speaking to the international news agency about his new plan last Thursday.

‘It can be a very happy new year as Thailand’s travel high season is the perfect time to allow people into the country,’ Minister Phiphat proclaimed. ‘Most Chinese visitors come to Thailand for a week, so being quarantined would not be worth the trip for many.’

Minister bullish that Thailand can welcome 11 million Chinese tourists in 2021 generating ฿540 billion

The minister estimated that these plans could see Thailand hosting 11 million visitors from China in 2021 coming at the peak of the high season for tourism. He said that the visitors would generate ฿540 billion for the Thai economy or nearly 28% of the figure achieved in 2019 which was a record year before this year’s catastrophe struck in April and which has since closed Thailand’s borders.

Mr Phiphat admitted that initiatives from Thailand’s Tourism Authority to boost incentives to domestic tourists as a replacement for foreign tourism had failed and that the country, therefore, had no choice but to reopen.

‘Thais don’t have enough money to boost the industry, so either way, we have to find a way to bring in foreign tourists,’ the minister said. ‘If we don’t receive any foreign tourists, our economy will suffer a heavy contraction.’

Dire situation reported in Thailand’s tourist hotspots which have become ‘ghost towns’

Reports from Thailand’s former tourist hotspots in recent months are distressing. Hotels and tourist-related ventures are trying to stay open with reduced staff pay even as millions of former employees, already out of work, are queuing for free food handouts on a daily basis.

The one bright spot, however, has been the upmarket resort of Hua Hin in the scenic western province of Prachuap Khiri Khan. There, hotel operators are reporting a more manageable 50% occupancy rate as the more exclusive seashore resort is supported by many well-off Thai holidaymakers and expats.

In the meantime, many of the well-known nightlife centres have become darkened shells or been transformed into ghost towns with wandering street dogs.

Scheme after scheme ran into problems with even high paying Elite cardholders lately grumbling

Despite this, the government has pressed ahead with scheme after scheme with each failing to be implemented or running into problems.

The latest is the Special Tourist Visa which is experiencing problems as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with its network of embassies and consulates around the world is already overworked and stretched to the limit processing applications for foreigners with extensive links to Thailand.

In any event, the scheme, even at full capacity would only contribute less than 1% of the visitors or annual foreign tourism income and this is based on what appear to be very optimistic projections from the government which appear to anticipate a 1,600% increase in expenditure per tourist using this scheme compared to visitors from 2019 and 2020.

Regular tourists to Thailand flying into the Maldives

There is also widespread apathy and indeed hostility being generated by the weighty and demanding terms associated with the visa including multiple insurance policies, multiple Covid tests, medical certification as well as an expensive quarantine package.

The reopening of other tourist markets is already beginning to divert attention away from Thailand as a tourist destination for western holidaymakers looking for sun and relaxation. 

The Maldives has been fully accessible to tourists since mid-July when it opened its borders allowing all tourists to enter without Covid tests or without insurance.

The Maldives fully reopened without restrictions and is reporting 100% occupancy rates in hotels. There are no Covid tests, no fees or intrusive insurance requirements except a warm welcome from a country anxious to compete in the market and put Covid 19 behind it.

Tourism in the island republic in the Arabian sea, southwest of Sri Lanka, is reported to be booming as the government there has moved to eliminate any costs or additional charges as the island welcomes new arrivals.

Many of those arriving there are western visitors who once were regular tourists to Thailand including a large contingent of Americans.

Some Elite cardholders are not happy

The Thai Examiner, in recent weeks, has heard from a number of Elite cardholders.

These are foreigners who have paid out in excess of ฿500,000 or ฿ 1 million and were promised privileged access to Thailand.

They appear to be having communication problems with their embassies and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as that government department appears to be under intense pressure to process paperwork in order to issue a required Certificate of Entry to those foreigners with the card attempting to enter Thailand in strictly controlled conditions which must be negotiated.

This is despite the government announcing ambitious plans to ensure the availability of work permits to Elite cardholders who already must pay a minimum of ฿500,000 for the basic package but who must pay ฿1,000,000 to avail of this offer together with a $1 million investment in Thailand within the first 12 months.

Credibility of efforts to restart tourism compromised

The credibility of the process to restart Thailand’s tourism industry is such that it has become difficult in recent weeks to accurately report on the situation that has become so challenging with confusion and contradictory information emanating from multiple sources.

It is a similar situation, it must be said, with many European governments who appear lacking in any coherent plan or direction to deal with this ongoing crisis.

The fiasco was laid bare, in recent days, when Mr Natthaphanu Noppakhun, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, revealed that not one applicant for a Special Tourist Visa had applied from China.

Mr Natthaphanu is the man most closely identified with efforts which ultimately were successful over the last five months, to allow over 23,000 stranded foreigners back into Thailand, many of them westerners.

This was in spite of a reported 120 Chinese visitors expected in Phuket earlier this month from China and reported to be availing of the Special Tourist Visa offer.

It emerged then that the Tourism Authority of Thailand appeared to be operating under a misconception of the regulatory regime and reality of the process involved in obtaining clearance to enter, when it revealed that the basis for the reports was a list of names.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs now reported to be working more closely with the Tourism Authority

Since then, it is understood that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is working with the Tourism Authority of Thailand to process those interested in visiting the kingdom. 

The debacle has led to open criticism from Thai tourist bodies in Phuket and other areas as to how efforts to reignite the tourism industry are being managed at this time of an industry-wide crisis.

The first batch of Special Tourist Visa holders subject to 14 days quarantine, a special tracking app, Covid testing and insurance requirements, is expected to be in Thailand later this week.   

TAT acknowledged the problems

Over a week ago, a Tourism Authority of Thailand deputy governor, Thapanee Kiatphaibool appeared to acknowledge the problems not only with the processing of documents for Special Tourist Visa visitors from China and elsewhere but also responded to problems associated with high-paying Elite visa cardholders which have been raised.

‘Thailand is allowing more groups to cross the border, so more documents need to be approved by the Foreign Ministry to grant a certificate of eligibility to tourists,’ she revealed. ‘We will do our best to help facilitate foreigners.’

The tourism chief revealed that at that point, only 14 Elite cardholders had fully entered Thailand since the shutdown while 34 were in the process of quarantine suggesting a pickup in volume.

PM’s instruction to delay Chinese tourists until after the vegetarian festival in Phuket had finished

She attributed the delay in the Special Tourist Visa holders now not arriving in Thailand until October 25th to a request from the Prime Minister’s Office that the group arriving in Phuket should not come until after a well known vegetarian festival in the former tourist hotspot.

Phuket is Thailand’s busiest tourism centre outside Bangkok with 3,000 hotels, many of which are now closed and facing the threat of bankruptcy if foreign tourism is not allowed to return.

The latest plan from the Minister of Tourism is promising the famous tourist island a welcome Chinese wave in 2021.

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Further reading:

China and Thailand forging deeper ties which may pose a problem for western firms in the future

Chinese STV visitors now delayed until later in the month! Economic expert warns of real calamity

Special Tourist Visa a fiasco as boss warns of at least 1 million jobs lost without mass tourism being reopened

Thailand’s new foreign tourism is limited despite the Special Tourist Visa and new Chinese arrivals

Tourism industry could be left on its knees if curbs on inbound foreigners are not relaxed or lifted in time

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