Thailand marks 100 days without local coronavirus cases. Will he soon open the borders?

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(CNN) – Thailand has not reported any locally transmitted Covid-19 cases for 100 days, marking a milestone in the battle against the coronavirus that only a small number of countries in the world have reached.But Thailand’s government is also facing increasing pressure from businesses to reopen borders to international tourists, as months of travel restrictions have devastated its heavily tourism-dependent economy.

The Southeast Asian country has not recorded any local infections since the end of May. It still finds cases of coronavirus among arrivals abroad, who are subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine period. Patients remain in quarantine until they have recovered.

So far, the country of 70 million people has a caseload of just 3,427, with 58 deaths. More than 28% of reported infections are overseas cases, according to the Department of Health.

Thailand was the first country to detect the coronavirus outside of China, confirming its first case on January 13 – a Chinese tourist who had flown to Bangkok from Wuhan.

People wearing face masks walk along Khao San Road, a popular area for tourists in Bangkok, Thailand, March 6, 2020.

JACK TAYLOR / AFP / AFP via Getty Images

The country initially refrained from banning Chinese tourists, but at the end of March, when its number of cases soared to nearly 1,000, the Thai government declared a state of emergency and prohibits entry to all non-resident aliens.

The border closure has helped protect the country as the virus rages around the world, but it has also taken a heavy toll on its tourism sector, which the World Bank says normally contributes nearly 15% of GDP to Thailand.

In June, the Tourism Council of Thailand said it expected to see around 8 million foreign tourists this year, down 80% from the record number of 39.8 million last year.

The Thai economy shrank 12.2% in the second quarter of this year, its worst in 22 years since the Asian financial crisis of 1998.

“We hope we can find ways to bring tourists back in the future. Bringing it back from tourists is one of the key factors in reviving the Thai economy for the rest of the year and into the next year, ”said Don Nakornthab, senior director of the Economic and Policy Department at the Bank of Thailand.

“But we have to do it with caution, because if the second wave occurs, especially because of the opening to tourists, it will put Thailand in difficulty again,” he said at a press conference. Monday.

“Safe and sealed”

Thai Tourism Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn said late last month that the country aims to allow foreign tourists to enter the country through a program dubbed “Safe and Sealed”.

“I have asked the Prime Minister for approval to set October 1 as the date to allow (incoming) tourists to enter,” he said. “I also applied to use Phuket as a pilot model… and received approval from the Center for Economic Situation Administration. ”

If successful, the project will be extended to include other destinations.

At first, tourists will be allowed to travel to Phuket – Thailand’s largest island – and will need to be quarantined at a designated resort for 14 days.

Phiphat cited popular Patong Beach as an example of an area where this could work. Special one-kilometer zones of three to four stations could be set up there, allowing tourists in quarantine to spend time on the beach – provided they stay in their designated area.

Travelers will need to get tested for Covid-19 at the start and end of their quarantine period. Then they will be free to travel to the island.

But the minister said tourists who wish to travel beyond Phuket will have to remain in quarantine for an additional seven days and will undergo a third Covid-19 test at the end of this 21-day quarantine period.

Hotel staff who work in these designated areas will not be allowed to leave without first being quarantined and will also be tested regularly for Covid-19 to prevent the spread of the virus.

Yuthasak Supasorn, governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, told CNN Travel last month that the plan has been approved by the government and the next step is to hold a public hearing to get approval from local residents – which should take place in early September. .

As October approaches, however, Yuthasak said on Thursday that Phuket may not be able to receive tourists on October 1 as planned.

” There is still a lot to do. The Prime Minister has just said that we must prepare, ”he said.

Vichit Prakobgosol, chairman of the Association of Thai Travel Agents, said most of the association’s members strongly support the program and hope to see tourists return to Thailand in the last quarter of the year.

“This needs to be done urgently, (otherwise) Thailand will be in real trouble. There will be even more people who lose their jobs, ”he said.

Balancing the risks

As the tourism and hospitality sectors seek to reopen borders, many Thai residents remain concerned about the potential health risk.

According to a poll conducted by the National Institute for Development Administration in July, more than 55% of 1,251 people polled across Thailand were against a proposed “medical and wellness” program, which would open the country up to foreigners who test negative for Covid-19. for medical treatment.

Thais don’t need to look far for an example of warning about how easily the virus can reappear in countries where it has apparently been eliminated.

Vietnam, another tourist hotspot in Southeast Asia, has also recorded a streak of 100 days without local transmitted infection – and a proud record of zero coronavirus deaths. But that ended at the end of July, when a new epidemic broke out in his popular seaside town of Danang. Since then, Vietnam has recorded 34 deaths from coronaviruses.

Further in the Pacific, New Zealand had remained free of locally transmitted cases for 102 days, before a new outbreak last month placed its most populous city of Auckland under lock and key.

In June, Thailand proposed the idea of ​​a “travel bubble” with some countries where the number of infections was kept low. The plan would have allowed travelers to move between these destinations without having to go through quarantine.

However, the proposal was shelved after new waves of infections hit several potential destinations Thailand considered, including Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong.

Yuthasak told CNN on Thursday that the plan had not been revived. “We are not considering this option at the moment,” he said.

CNN’s Karla Cripps contributed to this report.

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