A chef stands on an empty beach as he waits for customers on Koh Chang in Trat on July 31. (Reuters photo)

Authorities are finalising a plan that would make it possible for retired, sun-seeking foreigners to spend the coming winter months in Thailand in an effort to save the ailing tourism industry, says a prominent hospital executive.

Although the country’s borders have been closed to most foreigners since late March to fight the pandemic, the government is proposing to grant visas to foreigners who want to stay in Thailand for up to nine months, said Boon Vanasin, chairman of Thonburi Healthcare Group Plc, the country’s third largest private hospital firm, which runs hospitals and retirement homes.

These long-term visitors would begin their stay with a mandatory 14-day quarantine and frequent virus tests in of Phuket. After three weeks on the island and negative test results, they would be free to travel to other regions of the country, according to Dr Boon, who said he has direct knowledge of the government’s plan and expects the arrivals to begin before winter.

Tourism and Sports Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn reiterated on Saturday that he supported the idea of a long-stay tourist visa for selected groups.

Speaking at a news conference during a tour arranged for several ambassadors in Samut Prakan, Mr Phiphat said the initial visa would be for 90 days and could be extended twice more for a total of 270 days.

Traisulee Traisoranakul, deputy spokeswoman in the Prime Minister’s Office, said earlier that while the government had approved the plan in principle, it is still finalising measures to reduce the risk of virus infections.

The opening-up would offer a lifeline to the devastated tourism and hospitality industry, which is struggling to survive after five months without foreign visitors. Although Thailand has been one of the world’s most successful countries in curbing Covid-19 — it has not had a locally transmitted case for more than three months — the tourism-reliant economy has been one of the worst-hit globally, projected to shrink by a record 8.5% this year.

On Saturday, the country reported one imported coronavirus infection.

The move comes as other economies dependent on tourism — from Bali in Indonesia to Hawaii in the United States — grapple with the pandemic, which has brought global travel to a virtual halt. Bali had planned to start allowing foreigners to return on Sept 11 but the Indonesian government this week said no foreign tourists would be allowed until the start of 2021.

Reopening to tourists has led to the resurgence of infections in some places such as the Caribbean island of Aruba, and governments are fearful of striking the wrong balance between public health and economic revival.

The new plan being studied in Thailand would make it possible for millions of seniors from European countries like Germany and Sweden, who usually spend their winter months in warmer Mediterranean climates, to consider Thailand instead as it is safe from infection risk, said Dr Boon.

He said his company had fielded queries from European retirement communities that could amount to 50,000 seniors making the journey to Thailand for the coming winter.

Dr Boon plans to partner with hotels to provide quarantine facilities and long-term accommodation for senior citizens and other long-stay visitors, who could arrive via chartered flights before winter begins.

Millions of seniors from Europe are likely to be interested due to lower Covid-19 risks, said Dr Boon. (Bangkok Post file photo)

Thai Airways International said it would operate at least two such flights a month starting in late November to connect Phuket with countries including Denmark, Germany and the UK.

“Many seniors don’t want to spend their time in a cold harsh winter. They want tropical weather,” said Dr Boon. Around 90% of Thonburi Healthcare Group’s customers before the pandemic were international.

But it’s unclear if the government intends to let so many foreigners in. On Thursday, the deputy army chief said officials were considering plans to reopen to long-stay visitors and foreigners who own local property, but this would amount to only “hundreds” of people.

The economy is in desperate need of a boost. Before the pandemic, European tourists would vacation in Phuket and surrounding areas for between two weeks to two months, said Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, president of the Phuket Tourist Association.

More than 6.7 million Europeans visited Thailand in 2019 and contributed 461 billion baht to the economy, according to government data. They made up about 17% of total foreign visitors and 24% of total foreign spending.

“Phuket’s economy needs foreign demand to bounce back but we also have to balance infection risks and the economy,” said Mr Bhummikitti.

The government has been trying to promote domestic tourism with a campaign to foot 40% of travellers’ hotel bills, but local spending alone can’t compensate for a loss of foreigners. In Phuket, foreign visitors accounted for two-thirds of overall tourists but contributed to 90% of its tourism receipts.

“We’ll allow a small number of foreign visitors into the country first to test our system,” Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said on Wednesday. “We have to do something so that the situation doesn’t get worse with businesses closing down and people losing jobs.”


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