Bangkok gears up for tourists, but it could be just a trickle

As Thailand reopens after 18 months, experts predict tourism industry will return to normalcy only next year

BANGKOK - Hotels, street food carts and tuk-tuks are gearing up for the return of tourists to Bangkok as Thailand prepares to reopen next Monday to fully vaccinated visitors after 18 months of Covid-19 travel curbs.

But the steamy metropolis, the world's most-visited city before the pandemic, will take some time to get back to its pulsating, intoxicating old self, industry experts say.

The pandemic sent visitor numbers plummeting from 40 million in 2019 to just 73,000 in the first eight months of this year - leaving its tourism- reliant economy registering its worst performance in over two decades.

The authorities are desperate to revive the sector - which accounts for a fifth of the economy - despite Thailand still recording about 10,000 Covid-19 infections a day and the vaccination rate lagging at about 40 per cent.

The government is hopeful that a plan to phase out tough quarantine rules could lure visitors back to bars and beaches despite the prevalence of the virus.

"We have estimated the tourism industry will return to normal levels around the middle of next year," Bangkok Metropolitan Administration spokesman Pongsakorn Kwanmuang said.

The kingdom is expecting the return of at least a million visitors by March and to generate about US$30 billion (S$40.4 billion) in revenue through next year, the authorities say.

The absence of visitors has left an unmistakable impact on Bangkok's Chinatown, with shuttered shops visible under the glare of neon lights and lines of empty tuk-tuks.


Mr Samran, a driver for 25 years, saw his income drop by 90 per cent and now earns just US$3 a day.

"I want to stop but I am old, no one will hire me for anything else," the 58-year-old said.

"I haven't picked up a single tourist since April 2020."

From Nov 1, fully vaccinated visitors travelling from more than 40 "low-risk" countries will be allowed to enter with a negative Covid-19 result, retesting again upon arrival.

Included on the list are a slew of European countries as well as China and the United States.

China is Thailand's largest source of tourists, accounting for 11 million visitors in 2019.

But with Beijing imposing a minimum two-week quarantine on returnees, few Chinese holidaymakers are likely to arrive at the kingdom's sun-soaked beaches come next month.

There is also no sign that India or Russia - two other major sources of visitors - will be added to the list soon.

The second stage of reopening, planned for Dec 1, is to end a seven-month prohibition on booze in countless bars and restaurants - a move industry figures say is vital to entice thirsty visitors looking to cut loose. - AFP