Thailand is one of the few countries that can claim to have limited the internal spread of COVID-19 so far. The country has yet to reach 3,500 total cases, with a limited number of deaths, currently at 58. A timely closure of the border backed by initiatives widely adopted by Thai citizens has contributed to this arguably successful containment, especially considering the size of the Thai population at nearly 70 million citizens. But is it really a success?
To open or not to open?
In recent weeks, several observers have questioned the need to maintain Thailand’s tight lockdown, especially in light of the country’s dependence on tourism, which makes up a significant portion of its GDP between 10 and 20 percent. After a record 39.8 million tourists in 2019, the Bank of Thailand expects around 8 million visitors for 2020, but even lower figures are to be feared.
A recent report by the National Council for Economic and Social Development (NESDC) claimed that more than 4 million Thais were unemployed due to lack of tourists, and up to 14 million could be in the same situation if a solution didn’t is not found by the end of the year. All of this is in addition to the continuing economic difficulties that have plagued the industrial sector following the China-US trade dispute.
Discussions about ‘travel bubbles’ with countries considered safe, such as South Korea or New Zealand, quickly faded into the background as second waves of COVID-19 hit larger areas, leading finally to new blockages.
In early August, authorities presented a plan to gradually reopen the country, starting with Phuket, a famous resort island in southern Thailand, where it was hoped that the situation could be more easily controlled. The plan immediately raised doubts about its potential appeal and difficult implementation. Moreover, even before more details were provided, the first case of domestic transmission in 100 days has been discovered, with continued uncertainty over how it could have happened. This has resulted in further delays in the potential reopening of Phuket.
More recently, another proposal to invite European retirees with longer visas and other concessions has been put forward and is currently under discussion. In the meantime, it looks like the limited Phuket model could be expanded to include the whole country, but it’s still unclear who the target audience is and whether expensive quarantine periods at luxury hotels would still be mandatory, or so more affordable solutions will be offered.
In July, analysts described Thailand’s economic outlook as “the worst in Asia,” with a potential 8.1% GDP contraction – even worse than the Asian financial crisis of 1997. This is mainly due to the country’s dependence on tourism and exports. Additionally, the baht, Thailand’s national currency, was gaining against the US dollar, hampering the rebound in exports while exacerbating the country’s overall economic woes.
Economic discontent: too little, too late?
Fast forward to early September, and no complete solution has been put forward yet. A few selected groups have been allowed to enter the country and a domestic tourism boost has been introduced to alleviate the situation, but these measures alone will not be able to support local businesses in the long term, and discontent is growing.
All things considered, Thailand may still be in a favorable position to implement the long-awaited “Safe and Sealed” plan to attract tourists to a virus-free travel destination. Several countries have felt the urge to reopen their borders, whether to business travelers or tourists, but many of them have experienced second waves, especially in Europe. However, for a country with extensive hospitality experience and a successful healthcare system like Thailand, the risks can be managed.
For example, the initial idea of attracting a richer population who are likely to spend most of their time in resorts or confined areas instead of more adventurous “hiking” trips with multiple destinations needs to be carefully considered. . Considering the cost of flights, COVID-19 testing, mandatory health insurance and quarantine, visitors who still want to come to Thailand can expect to have the financial means to support themselves for longer stays. long, with a limited risk of misconduct such as a visa. overtaking, which is common.
Political discontent: student mobilization
Beyond the pressing economic issues discussed so far, student protests calling for the resignation of the government as well as expected changes to the constitution are gaining momentum. Initially limited to small gatherings at a few universities in the capital Bangkok, they evolved into a more inclusive mass protest of over 10,000 participants in mid-August. These protests couldn’t come at a worse time for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, as the country is about to embark on a precarious ‘dance’ between the great powers while trying to avoid be involved in the intensification of the Sino-American rivalry.
While the decision to gradually reopen the country to tourists and businessmen is almost entirely in the hands of local authorities, both internal factors such as the development of protests and external factors such as the upcoming presidential elections in the United States. and the ensuing global crisis implications, will need to be carefully weighed to limit internal and external discontent and associated economic and political risks. At this point, it is still unclear which factors will be most important in the near future, but it is certain that Thailand’s leaders are on the verge of some tough choices that will define the country’s post-pandemic position.