Few countries have been more affected by the shutdown of global travel to fight the coronavirus than Thailand. Bangkok was the most visited city in the world in 2019, ahead of Paris, France, and that year the country received 39.8 million visitors. The number dropped to 6.7 million in 2020.
But the country is emerging from isolation. Starting with the Phuket Sandbox program in July, Thailand has revived its battered tourism industry. As of November 1, fully vaccinated travelers from eligible countries – including China (including Hong Kong), Malaysia, and the United States – have been able to enter through the Test and Go program (also known as the quarantine exemption). After one night in an accredited hotel, visitors with a negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test result are free to move around.
The numbers look promising. As national cases of Covid-19 have declined, Thailand has seen the strongest growth in internet searches of any destination: a 75% jump between October 10 and November 19, according to Travel Insights with Google. On December 1 and 2 alone, 16,210 travelers entered Thailand, including 13,203 under the Test and Go program.
But the net of visitors has yet to become the deluge Thailand needs to rehydrate its parched tourist industry. Bangkok’s hubs for travelers are lined with closed storefronts displaying “For Sale” and “For Rent” signs. The country’s tuk-tuks sit idle, drivers doze off or stroke their phones.
In the northern seaside town of Chiang Mai, the mere sight of a visitor sets off excitement among tour operators looking for all they can do. For 41-year-old Israeli Benjamin Cohen, Thailand was the “perfect option” after two years stuck at home.
âI have type 1 diabetes and my parents have some prerequisites, so I had to quit my job as a biology teacher,â says Cohen, who was worried about catching Covid-19 from one of his students.
Now vaccinated, Cohen says one of the reasons he was brought back to Thailand was for safety. âIt seems people here are more willing to play by the rules and wear masks,â he says, and although he found the online documents needed to enter Thailand âdifficultâ – a sentiment echoed by d other travelers interviewed for this article – once it hit Phuket, the procedures proved to be relatively straightforward.
âI landed at noon and took my PCR test straight away. At six or seven in the evening, when it came back negative, I was told I could go out.
What Cohen encountered, however, was a much quieter scene than what he had experienced on previous visits, in 2017 and 2019. âIt was crowded but it was a lot quieter. You look in a bar and there is a bartender and maybe two local girls were sitting there; that’s it.”
Cohen headed north from Phuket to Chiang Mai, where he noticed some changes as well.
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âI wanted to book the hotel where I stayed before but it closed so I booked another one. It was completely empty, I was the only person. I travel alone and I like to meet people but there is no one to meet.
Booking excursions was also a challenge. âYou talk to travel agents but they tell you if a certain number of people don’t sign up, you can’t go. Some tours I wanted to do have been canceled. For others, the price had increased because of fewer travelers.
Cohen, however, found a Thai cooking class willing to take him with another tourist, backpacker Lukas Zimmerman.
Zimmerman recently graduated with a master’s degree in economics, but the 26-year-old German has known the university mostly online and from the confines of his bedroom. Eager to stretch his legs, he quickly booked a flight when a friend informed him Thailand was opening up.
However, hiking in the country is not what it once was.[[nid:555211]]
âWhen I was cleared out of my hotel in Bangkok, I didn’t see any tourists. Then I took the sleeper train because everyone told me you would meet travelers there, but I was the only one. In my hostel in Kanchanaburi, I was also the only tourist, âsays Zimmerman.
In the absence of the private tourist minibuses that commuted between popular sites in central Thailand, Zimmerman attempted to take a public bus to Ayutthaya. “The driver didn’t understand me and I ended up in Bangkok.”
Despite having traveled for seven days “and not having met anyone before Chiang Mai”, Zimmerman still enjoys the adventure. âYou hear about the land of smiles, but with everyone wearing masks, I thought I wouldn’t see it. But you can see it in the eyes. This place is so warm.
On a practical note, he adds: âCases are on the rise again in my country; Germany is likely heading for another lockdown. “
Zimmerman isn’t the only one seeking refuge from a European winter and associated spikes in infection. Bence Irmes, 28, was so enamored with Southeast Asia after a visit in 2018, that he returned in 2019 with the intention of staying. He found a job as a personal development teacher in Da Nang, Vietnam.
âVietnam moved pretty quickly and until the Delta variant found its way into the country, life was pretty normal,â he says. When Vietnam finally closed earlier this year, Irmes returned to his native Hungary to get the vaccine, but quickly wanted to return to the region he loves.
âIt’s hard to live in Europe once you’ve experienced life in Southeast Asia,â he says, wearing short sleeves under the shade of a banyan tree in December. âWhen Thailand reopened, I immediately booked a flight. Until Vietnam reopens, I can teach from Chiang Mai, online.
Many digital nomads congregate in Thailand to find themselves in a similar time zone to students and customers while waiting for other countries to reopen. âRent is cheap,â says Irmes, noting that house prices are very negotiable. âPlus the weather is good and the food is amazing.
For Japanese traveler Shiori Kumagai, the newly opened Thailand was the first stop on a hoped-for world tour.
“I started working every day at eight o’clock and finished at nine or ten at night,” Kumagai says of her decade working in Tokyo. âIn Japan, it is common to continue working until 60 or 70 [years of age]. I thought there had to be more in life.
After negotiating a part-time distance contract with her employer, Kumagai was considering moving to Mexico until she learned of Thailand’s reopening. âI’ve been here twice on vacation,â she says.
Thailand has always attracted the Japanese and since July Japan has consistently ranked among the top 10 sources of visitors.
âIt was a bit tricky to fill out all the paperwork, but when I got to the airport, everything went really well,â says Kumagai. “I’ve heard that if you go to Japan it takes five hours to get out of the airport, but in Bangkok it was about 20 minutes.”
The experience of traveling beyond the airport was not as she remembered it.
âWhen I arrived in Bangkok nine years ago, I went to temples like Wat Arun and Wat Pho and walked along Khao San Road. It was full of people. I did the same this time but it was totally empty. It was good for taking pictures in the temples, but at the same time, it was a bit sad, âshe says.
“I don’t know what Thais think of tourists, but you can see the economic impact.”
As the Omicron variant of the coronavirus again threatens to derail personal travel plans as well as the region’s cautious reopening – Thailand announced its first case of the new variant on December 6; a visitor from Spain who arrived under the Test & Go program – tourists to Thailand are facing the possibility of new travel restrictions.
“It feels like we could go back,” says Irmes, who prefers to teach in person and fears Vietnam will backtrack on its reopening schedule. But Kumagai, despite being from a country that has banned foreign travelers in response to the emergence of the Omicron variant, remains optimistic.
âOf course, we have to be careful, wash our hands and avoid close contact with people. But viruses have been with us for a long time and the risks are everywhere. I think it’s better to enjoy life, âshe said.
“If some Southeast Asian country decides not to open, I will try to extend my visa and stay in Thailand.”
This article first appeared in South China Morning Post.