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Thailand to reduce quarantine for visitors to revive tourism

A customer waits for her order from a street food vendor on Khaosan Road in Bangkok on March 12, 2021. Heavily tourism-dependent Thailand is eyeing plans for vaccine passports and quarantine waivers as the global COVID-19 inoculation drive gathers pace.

NICOLAS AXELROD/BLOOMBERG

By RANDY THANTHONG-KNIGHT AND SUTTINEE YUVEJWATTANA | Bloomberg | Published: March 25, 2021

Thailand will shorten the mandatory quarantine period for foreign travelers next month but deferred a decision on recognizing vaccine certificates for easier global mobility amid a spike in global virus cases.

A panel chaired by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha on Friday approved curtailing the quarantine to 10 days from two weeks starting April 1, Traisuree Taisaranakul, a government spokeswoman, told reporters in Bangkok. The country may stop enforcing quarantine altogether from Oct. 1 though the group delayed a decision on cutting isolation period to seven days for vaccinated tourists as recommended by an expert group last week, officials said.

A shorter quarantine is expected to make Thailand - famed for its palm-fringed beaches, temples and backpacker culture - more attractive to millions of foreign tourists and is seen as a key step toward a wider reopening. Still, tourism-reliant Thailand's reluctance to ease curbs fully point to the dilemma faced by authorities in balancing the need to protect people from fresh outbreaks while bolstering economic activities.

The pandemic has devastated Thailand's tourism industry, which provided more than $60 billion in revenue from about 40 million foreign visitors in 2019. A government campaign to boost travel by locals through hotel and air travel concessions has failed to make up for the slump in earnings as strict quarantine rules have kept most foreign travelers away.

The easing measures fell short of the tourism industry's expectations with the Tourism Council of Thailand calling for free entry of vaccinated travelers to save the sector.

"We should reopen for vaccinated visitors as soon as possible. We can't wait any longer," said Suthipong Phuenphiphop, a vice president of the tourism council, who also heads the Thai Travel Agents Association. "It's been a year and the industry is suffering, and if we have to wait until Oct. 1, it's going to be too late."

The Prayuth-led panel opted to assess the results of the ongoing inoculation drive and responses of other countries toward travel bubble agreements before approving vaccine passports for local residents, Rachada Dhnadirek, another government spokeswoman, said. Thailand is in talks with the U.S., South Korea and Singapore for vaccine passport pacts, according to Don Pramudwinai, deputy premier and foreign minister.

The government is prepared to lower the quarantine to seven days for vaccinated travelers once the nation is ready though a 14-day isolation will continue for those coming from areas with new virus strains, said Taweesilp Witsanuyotin, a spokesman for the Center for covid-19 Situation Administration.

Despite a flare-up in infections earlier this year, Thailand has largely contained COVID-19, with just 90 deaths over the course of the pandemic. Authorities closed a large market complex in capital Bangkok this week to contain a spike in infections tied to the cluster ahead of a peak travel period during the Thai New Year next month. The government will not impose any travel restrictions during the Songkran festival, Rachada said.

The COVID panel also approved the extension of a national state of emergency for two months through the end of May to deal with the pandemic. The emergency rules, first imposed in March last year, allow the government to enforce mandatory quarantines and streamline disease-control plans without multiple approvals from various agencies.

Thailand has administered more than 60,000 doses of vaccines since the start of its rollout on Feb. 28. It has prioritized health-care and front-line workers, as well as residents in tourist hotspots, such as Phuket and Koh Samui, the two islands where local tourism groups also target Oct. 1 for the full reopening.