The return of foreign visitors would begin with only a limited number of arrivals, to test the country’s disease control measures, which would be comprehensive, he said.
He sought to allay concerns that tourists could bring with them a new wave of coronavirus disease. Gen Prayut said the government would not let visitors arrive as they pleased.
“There will be forms to fill in. Flights must be traceable. When they reach their destinations their whereabouts will have to be confirmed and they will be isolated from others,” the prime minister said.
Gen Prayut said the return of tourists was essential for the country. “If nothing is done, things will get worse. Premises will be shut down. Employees will be laid off. How can the government afford to help them all?” he said.
He gave an assurance that visitors would be monitored, and said he hoped local people would welcome them back.
“Local people will have to take care [of the visitors] because the benefits will go to them, not the government,” Gen Prayut said. “Please rest assured that if [the disease] is detected, we will be able to contain it,” he said.
The prime minister said officials were drafting procedures for handling arriving tourists and considering which would be the first destination to receive them. The biggest economic impact of the COVID-19 response has been the provinces that used to get many foreign tourists, he said.
The government has sought advice from Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) to determine which areas of the country were most suitable to open, he said.
Areas highly damaged by the pandemic and in need of urgent relief will be prioritised, he said. He mentioned, for instance, the resort island of Phuket where people both agree with a proposal to let foreign tourists in and those who disagree. He said small groups of tourists will be allowed to come in under a sandbox concept (pilot project).
Under this concept, visitors will have to be tested for COVID-19 both before they leave their countries and upon arriving in Thailand, he said.
And when in Thailand, they will be required to stay only in areas designated for this tourism promotion programme to ensure their presence won’t compromise public health, he said.
“The easing of the travel ban is vital for those relying heavily on the tourism sector and it will help revive many businesses, bring back jobs associated with tourism and generate income,” he said. The government won’t be able to shoulder the costs of COVID-19’s economic impact for everyone for long given its limited budget, he said.
The best the government can do for now without allowing tourists in, is implement relief measures bit by bit allow more possible business activities with safety measures, he said.
Meanwhile, hotel operators in Phuket are trying to allay local concerns by insisting on strict rules for villa quarantines while dismissing the idea of letting foreign tourists travel freely.
“Since the Phuket Model has been introduced vaguely, hotels have reported cancellations in October bookings by local guests, as they’re concerned about health and safety measures when the province welcomes international tourists back again,” said Kongsak Khoopongsakorn, president of the Thai Hotels Association’s southern chapter.
He said the main problem is communication from some state agencies is in conflict with the private sector’s proposals, particularly regarding the 14-day quarantine. The association insists on five principles: targeting low-risk countries; testing on arrival and during stays; tracking tourists’ whereabouts via GPS; ensuring sufficient health capacity with a maximum of 10,000 patients a day; and creating trust by setting up a tourism fund to look after the welfare of the public during the pandemic.
At present there are just two alternative state quarantine (ASQ) hotels in the province, but 56 more have applied and are awaiting inspection and approval. But some rules in Phuket’s villa quarantine scheme have been relaxed, such as allowing guests who tested negative during the first five days to sunbathe on the hotel beach under social distancing rules.
The association is confident that foreign guests will consider their trips here as the cost of 14-day quarantine, estimated at B100,000-200,000, can be offset with a cheaper hotel price.