Thailand will resume a quarantine-free visa program for vaccinated visitors starting next month, as the tourism-reliant nation shifts its focus to economic recovery following an ease in new Covid-19 infections.
International travelers from all countries can apply for visas under the so-called Test & Go entry program from Feb. 1, the government said after a meeting of its main Covid task force on Thursday. Visitors will be required to undergo two Covid tests after arrival, one upon entry and another on the fifth day.
“We can no longer close our borders as the economic costs will be too high,” Finance Minister Arkhom Termpittayapaisith said. “Reopening and managing the outbreak need to go hand in hand.”
Thailand has experimented with several visa, quarantine and tourism programs over the past two years to support a sector that contributed about one-fifth of GDP before the pandemic, with 40 million foreign tourists generating more than $60 billion in 2019.
The Southeast Asian nation suspended its quarantine-free program in late December after spikes in the omicron variant were detected among foreign arrivals and in several local communities.
While Thailand did see a jump in new cases after the Christmas and New Year holidays, the numbers are far below the peak tallies during the delta wave and have yet to overwhelm the health-care system. The halting of the entry scheme, in concert with more vaccinations and tightening of local restrictions, helped keep the situation manageable, officials said.
The decision to revive the quarantine-free travel program is in line with the government’s call to treat Covid-19 as endemic and efforts to revive an industry that employs millions of people.
“The resumption of this program, which is expected to bring in more foreign tourists, can help strengthen the fragile economic recovery,” said Nattaporn Triratanasirikul, an economist at the research unit of Kasikornbank Pcl, which forecasts about 4 million arrivals from overseas this year.
“The government needs to find way for the economy to run on its own, so they can reduce fiscal support,” the economist said. “They can’t afford to borrow such a huge amount of money like before.”
The Test & Go program, which previously allowed vaccinated travelers from about 60 countries to skip quarantine, helped attract about 350,000 visitors in just two months before it was suspended. Narrower visa plans have involved so-called Sandbox systems, under which people could arrive and remain in specific destinations like Phuket and Koh Samui with limited restrictions.