The Year of the Ox is drawing to an end as we have become better at dealing with the Covid-19 virus. This year, water splashing was outlawed to avoid virus transmission and families were forced to enjoy the Songkran Festival at home once again.
As different strains of the deadly virus began to emerge, lockdowns were reinstated across the country and office workers were required to work from home for months as the number of Covid-19 patients surpassed 10,000 each day.
Due to inter-provincial travel restrictions, we still spent the majority of our time in front of a computer, connecting to the outside world through social media. Temporary closures of entertainment venues and tourist attractions dimmed the light of hope for Thailand’s tourism resurgence, while many countries banned the entry of foreigners to stop virus spread.
After two years of disruption from the Covid-19 pandemic, it appears that adjusting to circumstances is the best way to survive. The authorities and private sector are placing a greater emphasis on sustainability, technology and safety requirements.
Life reflects on what has occurred in Thailand’s tourism sector this year.
Thailand’s border reopening and travel restrictions
Luxury resorts in Kanchanaburi have been demolished after they encroached on national parks. Photo: PIYARACH CHONGCHAROEN
Following Europe’s border relaxation last year, Thailand initiated the “Sandbox” programme in July, which attracted more than 30,000 international tourists to Phuket by reducing the quarantine period from two weeks to seven days.
Visitors were allowed to extend their vacation plans to several renowned tourist destinations such as Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao in Surat Thani; Khao Lak and Koh Yao in Phangnga; as well as Koh Phi Phi and Railay Beach in Krabi. However, in the same month, the curfew was reintroduced in 13 provinces that were classified as high-risk zones.
After more than 40% of the population received two doses of vaccinations, Thailand reopened its borders last month to welcome foreign tourists under three entry schemes.
First, the Test and Go scheme, which was reserved for fully vaccinated travellers from 63 low-risk countries such as Japan, Singapore, Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, South Korea, and France.
All foreign travellers who wanted to stay in Thailand for at least 21 days could apply for a Thailand Pass by submitting documents including a vaccination certificate and medical insurance with minimum coverage of US$50,000 for the exemption of the quarantine period. However, visitors were required to stay overnight in an SHA++ hotel with a confirmed payment and receive an RT-PCR test as well as a planned airport transfer on arrival.
Second, the Living Blue Zone programme was designed for fully vaccinated travellers from other countries that weren’t included on the list of 63. They were allowed to spend the first five days in 26 provinces like Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Kanchanaburi, Phetchaburi, Chon Buri, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Khon Kaen before continuing their holiday to other parts of the country.
The third phase of the Rao Tiew Duay Kan scheme has begun. Photo © RAOCHANA
Third, the Happy Quarantine Nationwide scheme opened to both fully vaccinated and unvaccinated travellers from other countries not on the list. Fully vaccinated travellers must undergo a five-day quarantine, while unvaccinated visitors must enter a 10-day quarantine before travelling to other parts of the country for the rest of a 14-day quarantine — nine days for the vaccinated and five days for the unvaccinated.
While everything seemed to be going smoothly, the reopening of the border was put on hold. After 63 Omicron cases were confirmed and more cases were pending, the government announced on Tuesday that the Thailand Pass applications would be temporarily suspended for all new Test & Go and Sandbox schemes (excluding the Phuket Sandbox programme) until the situation is reviewed on Jan 4 to prevent a fourth wave of virus outbreak.
Some 90,000 of 200,000 travellers who were approved for entry through the Test & Go and Sandbox schemes but have yet to arrive will be permitted to enter Thailand and must undergo two RT-PCR tests.
While health authorities predict roughly 100 Covid-19 cases among the 200,000 tourists travelling through the Test & Go and Sandbox entry programmes, quarantine periods will be extended seven or 10 days, depending on the place of origin and vaccination status.
Staycation packages have been designed to rise people’s spirits after months of working from home. Photo © Kimpton Maa-Lai Bangkok
Travellers from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe have so far been barred from entering the country.
Apart from an identity card and passport, all passengers are now required to present a vaccination certificate or negative RT-PCR test result prior to departure or on arrival for domestic flights to several major cities, including Chiang Mai, Samui, Phuket and Sukhothai.
Sustainable tourism management
The Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation continues its efforts to safeguard the Earth after the Suvarnabhumi Resort, which encroached on protected areas in Chiang Mai’s Doi Angkhang, was dismantled last year.
In the riverside town of Kanchanaburi, the luxury Saiyok Floatel opened its doors to welcome vacationers in 1995 but intruded on the Sai Yok National Park by erecting floating rooms, piers and other structures on a scenic bend of the Kwae Noi River. After gaining a judgement from the Central Administrative Court in August, the park ordered the 20 million baht resort to be removed and land returned to the park.
The Department of Fine Arts has launched the AR Smart Heritage app to give new visual travel experiences. Photo © The Fine Arts Department
After a seven-year legal struggle, the 120-day demolition of the 30 million baht Suanphittawan Resort began in the middle of November. It featured 17 buildings spread across 20 rai that encroached on Srinakarin Dam National Park.
The Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation filed a civil complaint against the resort operator in 2014, seeking damages of 954,307 baht, and the court ordered the operator to dismantle all structures and remove them from the site.
Other resorts encroaching on and harming Sai Yok and other national parks would be targeted as well, despite earlier decisions not to prosecute them, according to Niphon Chamnongsirisak, chief of Protected Area Regional Office 3.
In the southern town of Krabi, Koh Phi Phi is slowly beginning tourism aimed at local travellers with Maya Bay scheduled to resume operations on Jan 1 to welcome the high season. After meeting with Marine National Park officers last week, veteran ecologist Thon Thamrongnawasawat posted on his Facebook about tourism management on Maya Bay after a three-year closure for rehabilitation.
The bay will be a peaceful sanctuary for blacktip reef sharks, so boats will no longer be allowed to moor near the beach. Transportation will be shifted to Loh Sama Bay at the back of the island. The national park has created a new nature trail and viewpoint so that tourists can admire breathtaking views of the pristine beach and the bay from afar. The number of tourists will be limited to 375 per round and a one-hour tour must be booked in advance.
The Department of Fine Arts has launched the AR Smart Heritage application to give new visual travel experiences. Photo: Pongpet Mekloy
Rao Tiew Duay Kan
The government has revised the “Rao Tiew Duay Kan” (We Travel Together) scheme to stimulate domestic tourism after earlier phases were plagued with bogus claims with some hotel operators taking advantage of the opportunity to raise room prices.
With the decrease in daily Covid-19 cases, the tourism promotion campaign returns for its third phase and runs from October to February to celebrate the reopening of the border and the high season. Only Thais aged 18 or over are eligible for 40% discount on accommodation rates up to 3,000 baht per night, 40% airfare discounts up to 3,000 baht, and a 600 baht free meal coupon each day.
Simultaneously, the Tour Tiew Thai scheme is designed for 1 million travellers who purchase package tours, with the government subsidising 40% of the cost up to 5,000 baht per person.
Virtual Travel Experiences
Despite the border closures, officials and the private sector have collaborated with experts from different fields to create virtual tours that provide travellers with fresh vacation experiences through online platforms.
In the midst of the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, Japan insisted on hosting the Tokyo Olympics 2020 though spectators were not permitted to watch the games at the venues. As a result, the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee teamed up with Airbnb to launch a special series of 200 Olympian and Paralympian Online Experiences, allowing sports fans around the world to take part in the event from the comfort of their own homes.
A group of competitive and retired athletes from 30 countries attended the online classes to share their passion for sports and their experiences as well as hold a conversation with fans via Zoom meetings.
As part of the Tokyo 2020 Support Program City Cast Virtual Tour, a group of volunteers also conducted a series of 20 virtual trips across the Olympic sites via Zoom meetings on Airbnb.com. It was a collaboration between the Nippon Foundation Volunteer Support Centre and Airbnb to promote Japanese culture.
Among the highlights were Akihiko’s “The Most Exciting Tokyo River Cruise”, “Present Day Fukushima & Calligraphy”, “Saitama’s Festival, Shrine As Power Spot”, and “Discover Floral Charm Of Yokohama City”.
In Thailand, the Department of Fine Arts launched the AR Smart Heritage application, which provides virtual experiences at more than 30 popular tourist attractions such as the famed ancient temple sites in Sukhothai, Si Satchanalai, Kamphaeng Phet and Ayutthaya.
This app was created as an audio tour using augmented reality and 3D modelling technologies to describe architecture. Wat Si Chum, which is home to a massive seated Buddha statue known as Phra Achana, and Wat Chedi Ched Thaeo, which is known for its exquisite Sukhothai-style architecture, are two of the highlights.
This year, Bangkok and many other provinces in dark-red zones were once again placed under curfew, so many luxury 5-star hotels created a variety of customised staycation packages for those looking to change their environment after months of working from home.
To satisfy their wanderlust, vacationers can enjoy benefits such as an overnight stay in a premium room with beautiful views of the Chao Phraya River or Bangkok’s skyscapes, flexible check-in and check-out times, complimentary meal options, complimentary spa treatments, and complimentary daytime activities.