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Thailand’s tourism reopening plans are gaining momentum as authorities roll out a national inoculation program and look into coronavirus vaccine passports and quarantine waivers.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha this week ordered officials to study vaccine certificates for international travel after signaling the tourism-reliant nation is open to scrapping the two-week quarantine for inoculated visitors. The local tourism industry wants mandatory quarantines to be lifted from as early as July 1 so the nation can open to potentially millions of vaccinated travelers.

Thailand managed to contain a flareup in COVID-19 infections at the start of the year, and its overall caseload is relatively low at about 26,000, with 84 deaths. A successful reopening by Thailand could spur other tourism-dependent nations to follow suit, though the World Health Organization this week warned about the risks of countries easing restrictions too fast.

“A gradual reopening, with the appropriate cautionary steps taken, will undoubtedly save businesses, jobs and bolster the economy,” said John Blanco, general manager at luxury hotel Capella Bangkok. “Given the building global momentum of vaccination, it would make sense to begin planning for the necessary steps.”

Thailand’s central bank says tourism, which accounted for about a fifth of the country’s gross domestic product pre-pandemic, is key to returning Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy to growth. Thailand’s GDP contracted 6.1% in 2020, the most this century. While the country has made some efforts to reopen its borders to foreign tourists, strict quarantine rules have kept most away.

William Heinecke, chairman of Minor International Pcl, which operates 500 hotels worldwide, is leading a campaign to petition the government to reopen the borders from the third quarter after the pandemic forced hundreds of hotels and tourism businesses to close.

“The current situation is unsustainable,” says the online petition, which got almost 6,000 signatories in two days. “The July 1 reopening would be a strategic opportunity for Thailand to show a leadership role among Asian countries and prepare the way for a solid recovery of the Thai economy in 2022.”

Passengers load luggage on a Thai Lion Air airplane before takes off at Don Muang Airport in Bangkok on Feb. 21. | AFP-JIJI
Passengers load luggage on a Thai Lion Air airplane before takes off at Don Muang Airport in Bangkok on Feb. 21. | AFP-JIJI

Prayuth has cautioned against rushing to issue vaccine passports and wants more coordination with other countries. The European Union is still months away from issuing COVID-19 immunity certificates, and Britain is expected to conclude a review of “COVID status certification” only by June 21.

Thailand, which started its vaccine rollout this week, aims to inoculate 50% of its population by the end of this year. There are also plans to distribute vaccines to tourist hotspots such as Phuket and Koh Samui in preparation for a wider reopening.

The government eased curbs on businesses and travel after bringing a recent flareup of the virus under control. But having skipped a nationwide lockdown to tackle the resurgence, Thailand may not return to zero cases anytime soon, according to Thira Woratanarat, an associate professor at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Medicine.

“Figuring out how to reopen for tourists is as important as planning vaccine distribution,” said Somprawin Manprasert, chief economist at Bank of Ayudhya Pcl. “The sooner the country can reopen for tourists, the sooner the recovery.”

“The second wave just delayed the recovery, rather than derailed it,” he said. “Even though we’re still in the dark, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

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