Visitors travel to the top of Khao Chang Pheuk hill in Thong Pha Phum National Park in Kanchanaburi to see the sunrise. Domestic tourists will play a crucial role in a rebound of the tourism industry during the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: PIYARACH CHONGCHAROEN

Thailand expects to face a long drought period in the international tourism market from now until the first half of next year, according to the Tourism and Sports Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn.

During this period, foreign visitors who come to the Kingdom will be those who have special purposes other than tourism. Tourism may restart after international flights return to normal, which could occur in April, driven by the Songkran water festival, he said.

This year, the total number of international arrivals may reach 7 million, plunging more than 80% from 39.8 million in 2019. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the minister expected the country to welcome almost 42 million visitors.

The statistics of the Tourism Department showed that during the first 10 months of this year, Thailand welcomed 6.9 million international arrivals. The largest group of visitors was still from mainland China (1.2 million), followed by Malaysia (619,402), Russia (586,995), Laos (380,900), Japan ( 320,133), India (261,710), Korea (259,818), France (236,260), German (229,358) and United Kingdom (220,662).

The targets of tourism in 2021, which may be adjusted after the second wave of the Covid-19 outbreak in the country, will be 120 million domestic trips, up from 95 million trips in 2020, and 10 million visitors. The total earnings of tourism may reach 1.2 trillion baht next year.

As today is the end of the year, Life gathers notable news in the tourism sector in 2020.

January

The border checkpoint in Phayao in Thailand and Xayaboury (also spelt Sainyabuli) in Laos became an international checkpoint allowing tourists to cross between the two countries to boost trade and tourism.

However, the service was closed down on March 26 when the Thai government issued an emergency decree banning the entry of foreigners, prohibiting public gatherings and urging people to stay at home.

The border crossing is located in Ban Huak in Phu Sang district of Phayao in the Northern part of Thailand and Pang Mon in Khop district of Xayaboury in Laos. The facility has been opened for only locals of both countries to cross within limited areas since 1993. The main purpose is to facilitate logistics.

The total value of import and export goods gradually increased from 180 million baht in 2013 to about 220 million baht in 2018. The average of visitors crossing the border per year was about 250,000.

In preparation for the international checkpoint, the Thai government upgraded the border facilities including the road connecting to Laos in 2018 while the facility in Xayaboury’s Pang Mon was also upgraded by using the 1.4 billion baht loan from the Bangkok-based Neighbouring Countries Economic Development Cooperation Agency.

The international border will allow tourists to cross from Phayao to other places in Laos including Muang Ngeun, Hong Sa or even to Luang Phrabang.

FEBRUARY

The worst wildfire in Phu Kradueng National Park occurred on Feb 16 and raged for 18 hours. After the firefighters put down the blaze, they found the damage of some 3,400 rai of pine forest and grasslands.

The park chief Sombat Pimprasit insisted that the fire destroyed only the outer rim of the national park while the inner core of the compound where wildlife live and wild plants are concentrated was not disturbed. Fortunately, no animal carcasses were found.

The chief believed that the blaze was caused by some locals who set fire to collect wild animals and plants. An initial investigation found that the fire began at the foot of a hill and rapidly spread up the mountain, fuelled by latex in the pine sap and strong wind. The park was closed to the public two months early starting from April, instead of June, until September to give the park more time to recover. The forest has recovered after the rainy season.

The incident was the worst forest fire in Phu Kradueng in 17 years.

MARCH

The Covid-19 pandemic led to the service cancellation of all Thai airlines by the end of the month.

Thai Lion Air was the first low-cost carrier to halt the service on March 21, four days before the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand (CAAT) approved the service suspension for all airlines.

Later, seven Thai airlines including Thai AirAsia and Thai AirAsia X, Bangkok Airways, Nok Air, Thai Smile Airways, Thai Lion Air and Thai Vietjet Air asked the government for a 24 billion baht bailout. (The request had not yet been granted by December even though the airlines reduced the total soft loan request to 1.4 billion baht.)

On May 1, low-cost airlines started to resume domestic flights with new hygiene measures. But on June 26, NokScoot became the first airline in Thailand to raise the white flag. The company will be liquidated while its 425 employees were retrenched with full benefits in compliance with Thai labour laws.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the pandemic badly hit the aviation industry globally. It reported that the industry will face a net loss of US$118.5 billion this year and US$38.7 billion in 2021.

The business may see the improvement in the second half of next year but IATA believes that the passenger volumes will not return to 2019 levels until 2024 at the earliest, with domestic markets recovering faster than international services.

APRIL

Aiming to control the spreading of the Covid-19 pandemic, the government announced the cancellation of Songkran holiday (April 13-15).

The Department of Health asked people to avoid returning home or to visit their parents and elderly family members, aiming to protect the highly vulnerable senior population from Covid-19. They encouraged people to greet older family members online instead.

Although the long holiday was pushed off, people still travelled, but in numbers less than half of previous years. According to the Department of Highways, traffic on major roads was down 45-70% from the same period of last year. The total road accidents during April 10-16 was reduced by 60% from 3,338 to 1,307. The death toll fell 56% from 386 to 167 and the number of injuries was down 63% from 3,442 to 1,260 people.

Meanwhile, some local hotels started to offer free rooms for doctors, nurses and medical professionals while more hotels joined the government’s campaign to become state quarantine facilities.

In April, about 130 hotels with 16,000 rooms in Bangkok offered the service. Later, new returnees have another option of alternative state quarantine facilities offered by high-end hotels and resorts nationwide.

MAY

Beaches in Pattaya, Chon Buri, were closed for the whole month as part of the effort of Pattaya City to contain Covid-19.

The beaches include Hat Pattaya, Hat Jomtien, Hat Phratamnak, Hat Cozy, Hat Wong Amat and Hat Krathing Lai. The closure was also enforced in other public areas such as the Lan Pho Na Kluea Public Park and Bali Hai Pier.

The announcement came after Pattaya eased some rules and have allowed people to jog on footpaths next to beaches. However, the shutdown prevented those who want to have a picnic or hang out at the beach or park.

JUNE

Beachgoers crowded Bang Saen beach in Chon Buri during the public holiday on June 3 after the third phase of easing the lockdown was implemented, allowing people to travel to other provinces.

Bang Saen beach always attracts a lot of weekenders because of its easy access and short drive from Bangkok.

Heavy traffic was seen heading to the beach, with a backup of vehicles nearing Bang Saen at least 2km long. This alarmed Saen Suk Municipal Mayor Narongchai Kunplome, who ordered roads temporarily closed to clear the backlog and regulate visitor numbers.

It was estimated that about 5,000 visitors were on the beach that day. They stayed too close to one another, sparking fears among municipal officials about a possible resurgence of Covid-19 infections.

The incident provoked Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to publicly warn people to avoid crowded places and wear masks in public places, including the beach.

The Saen Suk municipality enforced the new regulations with visitors, requiring them to wear masks at all times and to leave the beach by 11pm.

Elsewhere, beaches in Hua Hin of Prachuap Khiri Khan came back to life as seaside restaurants welcomed back customers. In the eastern province of Trat, ferries were back in business transferring tourists between the mainland and islands of Koh Chang, Koh Mak and Koh Kut. Beaches in Phuket also reopened while hotels were ready for receiving guests.

JULY

Registration for the “We Travel Together” stimulus tourism package was kicked off on July 15.

The government spared 22.4 billion baht for subsiding travel costs, accommodation, food and other services provided at tourist destinations. It expected the scheme to generate up to 50 billion baht for the economy.

However, after the first month, the programme did not reach its target of 5 million people. Only 851,000 registrants booked hotel rooms during the first 50 days. To attract more spenders, some rules were revamped. People can choose hotels in their home provinces and the e-voucher value for weekday travel increased from 600 to 900 baht.

The 40% hotel subsidy, or a maximum of 3,000 baht per night, extended from five to 10 nights and eventually to 15 nights as announced on Dec 8. A round-trip domestic air ticket subsidy raised from 1,000 to 2,000 baht and later to 3,000 baht.

The deadline for the programme was extended from the end of October to April 30 next year.

Since the project was launched, many people complained about scams. The Tourism and Sports Ministry and the Tourism Authority of Thailand gathered all the information. In the middle of December, TAT filed a complaint with the Royal Thai Police Office, urging it to investigate unusual transactions of 515 suspected hotels and stores such as fake booking and marking up prices.

The legal action will take place soon.

AUGUST

The rehabilitation process of Thai Airways was kicked off at Central Bankruptcy Court on Aug 17 after the nation’s flag carrier had submitted its petition for bankruptcy protection in May.

The court set two other dates for hearings including Aug 20 and 25 and approved the airline’s request for restructuring on Sept 14.

The airline has posted losses since 2013. The Covid-19 pandemic made the situation worse. According to Thai acting president Chansin Treenuchagron, the airline’s outstanding debt was about 352 billion baht. It may take three to five months for the airline to propose a business reorganisation plan to the court and the rehabilitation process could take around seven years.

SEPTEMBER

The reputation of Ai Khai in Wat Chedi has drawn tourists nationwide to visit Nakhon Si Thammarat.

People believe that Ai Khai, a common nickname for a boy in the South, is the boy spirit living in the century-old takhian wooden sculpture that protect the temple. Many worshippers were said to have won lotteries after paying respect to Ai Khai while social media helped Ai Khai gain fame after celebrities posted their success in business or wealth on Facebook, attributing it to the worship of Ai Khai.

It was estimated that thousands of people from near and far visited the temple daily. During the long holiday this month, tens of thousands of people came to the province to worship Ai Khai. Five low-cost airlines connect Bangkok to Nakhon Si Thammarat from early morning to late night daily. In addition, a speedboat service from Surat Thani also extends the ferry service to Sichon district in Nakhon Si Thammarat, allowing visitors to stop by Wat Chedi before or after crossing to Koh Samui.

According to a record of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, a total number of visitors during the third quarter sharply increased to 400,000 visitors a month, generating a huge earning to tourism business in the province.

OCTOBER

The country welcomed the first group of Chinese visitors on Oct 20 after the ease of lockdown.

The 41 Chinese tourists flew from Shanghai to Suvarnabhumi airport with a special Spring Airlines flight. They had a Special Tourist Visa (STV), which is effective from October until November 2021 as part of the government’s effort to restart the country’s pandemic-battered tourism industry. The visa allows international arrivals to stay in the Kingdom for 90 days. The extension will be allowed two times at 90 days each.

Foreign tourists are required to have a health insurance policy that covers Covid-19 treatment, with a minimum coverage of US$100,000 (3 million baht) throughout their stay in Thailand. Every visitor needs to stay 14 days in an alternative state quarantine facility before starting their trips in the Kingdom. The Tourism Authority of Thailand expects that each visitor would spend around 800,000 baht during their stay.

NOVEMBER

The Department of Rural Roads (DRR) has worked with the Tourism Authority of Thailand to upgrade a 750km route along Mekong River from Ubon Ratchathani to Loei.

It aims to stimulate the tourism industry and local economy in the northeastern region.

The route will be known as the “Nakha Vithee”, meaning the route of Naga, a mythical serpent-like creature that locals believe resides in the Mekong.

The project is part of the DRR’s efforts to create a network of “scenic routes” across the country under its 20-year strategic plan (2018-2037), according to DRR Director-General Pathom Chaloeywares.

The project must pass public hearings and DRR expects the work to start in 2022.

In addition, DRR also announced other two projects to upgrade two more routes.

One is a 175km route in the Khao Yai mountains in Nakhon Nayok, Nakhon Ratchasima, Prachin Buri and Sa Kaeo.

The other is a 1,500km route along the Gulf of Thailand from Samut Prakan to Narathiwat. Called “Thailand’s Riviera”, the project will be divided into four phases.

The first phase covers the upgrading of a 659km route from Samut Songkhram to Chumphon. This phase is about 80% complete, said Pathom, adding the project will be finished by 2023.

The second phase covers the upgrading of a 555km route from Chumphon to Songkhla. The upgrading began this year and is scheduled to be complete by 2026.

The third phase will be a 144km route running from Samut Prakan to Samut Songkhram. The upgrade is planned to start in 2023.

The fourth phase will be a 190km route running from Songkhla to Narathiwat. DRR will survey the route in 2023. Under the projects, landscapes and communities along the three routes will be developed as tourist attractions.

DECEMBER

Before the second outbreak of Covid-19 this month, the government had high hopes for the return of international tourists when it eased travel restrictions for citizens from 56 countries on Dec 18.

Tourists from countries such as Australia, France and the United States can travel without visas but would need a certificate to show they are free of Covid-19 72 hours before travel and are required to complete a two-week quarantine at designated hotels.

To help facilitate tourists, the Tourism Authority of Thailand partnered with Bangkok-based Locanation to launch an Alternative State Quarantine (ASQ) hotel booking platform at asq.locanation.com. The site featured a list of ASQ hotels in big cities including Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket and Buri Ram.

Recently the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration reported the surge of new Covid-19 infections after a large number of new cases were found in Chiang Rai, Samut Sakhon and Rayong. The infections span more than 40 provinces.

The tourism sentiment will definitely have a huge impact. Big New Year countdown celebrations in several major tourism cities including Bangkok, Pattaya, Rayong, Sukhothai and Khon Kaen are cancelled and some events will be moved to an online platform instead.

The Kasikon Research Centre estimated the loss in tourism during the New Year holiday will reach 15 billion baht because people would cancel events such as New Year parties, countdown celebrations and even reduce their shopping budgets. Domestic tourism will also lose about 17 billion baht, accounting to 30% of a revenue generating from tourism within a month.


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