BANGKOK, Thailand — More than a year and a half since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, Thailand’s tourism industry is now struggling to survive and trying to shift from mass tourism to attracting more quality visitors.
The country received some 40 million international visitors in 2019, and the number came down to only 6.7 million in 2020.
For 2021, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) predicted that even in the best-case scenario, there will only be around 1-2 million foreign tourists visiting the country. Some believed that this figure is still considered too optimistic given the current vaccination rate and rising number of daily cases in the country.
Focusing on high-end tourism has always been an ambitious target for Thailand. The authorities now believe that Thailand must use the pandemic as the catalyst to overhaul the industry, as this is the only way that the sector can survive and navigate through the crisis.
“The government’s tourism-revival strategy is to target big spenders that are seeking for privacy and social distancing during their stays, especially during and post COVID-19 world,” Tourism Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn said, adding that “the sector will try to attract high-end travelers, rather than a large number of visitors like what we have been relying on in the past.”
Phiphat said quality travel will also help address problems that already existed before the pandemic, such as over-crowding at beaches and temples and other environmental impacts.
It is vital that Thailand resets its entire tourism system, he said.
Several industry experts and operators have also attempted to promote more specific tourism segmentations such as medical and wellness, sports and food, or ultra-luxury travel.
On July 1, Thailand’s resort island of Phuket launched a “sandbox” scheme allowing vaccinated foreign tourists from low-and-medium-risk countries to visit the island without undergoing a two-week quarantine.
Earlier this month, the long-awaited Phuket sandbox “7+7” extension plan was approved by the Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA). The program cuts the mandatory stay in Phuket from 14 days to seven days before the visitors are allowed to travel on to other designated destinations such as Koh Samui, Koh Phi Phi, and Krabi.
The Phuket sandbox and other pilot schemes are designed to be a long-term project, building up towards the peak season from December to March. Many tourism-dependent localities elsewhere in the world stand to benefit from the achievement of Thailand’s reopening projects.
Yet two key important factors that will determine the pace of tourism recovery in Thailand are the effectiveness of the vaccine rollout in the country and the ability to control the spread of the virus, especially the more transmissible Delta variant, analysts said.
These major factors are crucial in Thailand’s plan to fully reopen for vaccinated tourists by mid-October, which very much will define the survival of its hospitality industry.