BANGKOK -- Thailand’s tourist industry took a modest step toward reviving its coronavirus-battered fortunes Tuesday by welcoming 39 visitors who flew in from Shanghai, the first such arrivals since regular travelers were banned almost seven months ago.
The visitors who arrived at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport are pioneers in a "Special Tourist Visa" program devised by Thai authorities to restore step by step a sector of the economy that welcomed almost 40 million foreign visitors last year and by some estimates accounts for more than 10% of the country’s GDP.
China was a natural choice for restarting tourism. Thailand was one of the top overseas destinations for Chinese tourists in 2019, when they accounted for by far the largest number of visitors to Thailand by nationality. Just as crucial is that China has largely contained the virus domestically, in sharp contrast to other countries.
Thailand has had only a handful of domestic cases since June, and China's few local outbreaks have dissipated quickly after authorities took steps such as testing entire cities and quarantining communities with potential exposure.
Thailand's newest visitors cannot freely traipse around the country, however.
Under the program approved by the Thai Cabinet in September, foreign tourists who commit to a stay of at least 30 days are issued 90-day visas that can be renewed twice. After arriving, they must stay in government-approved quarantine at a hotel or hospital for 14 days and prove they have long-term accommodations. They must have special insurance policies, undergo pre-departure testing for the virus and download an official coronavirus-tracking application for use during their stay.
An operations manager at Suvarnabhumi Airport said it is ready for tourists with a testing system that gives the result within 90 minutes. He said arrivals have to go through three thermal scans as they make their way through the airport.
“We can assure everyone that all our measures are systematic and meet international standards,” the manager, Kittipong Kittikachorn, told The Associated Press.
Members of the media were not allowed to meet with the arriving tourists.
At least two other flights from China are expected later this month, and Thailand's tourism ministry expects about 400 foreign visitors in early November. Future flights may land in destinations other than Bangkok, such as the southern resort island of Phuket.