Thailand still pushing travel bubbles with neighbours

Thailand is still searching for a travel future.

Thai government ministers regularly report that the country is in deep conversation with various nations about travel bubbles. This international concept is much easier to chat about than actually to implement, but would allow vaccinated citizens of two countries to visit one another without quarantine.

Now Sports and Tourism Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn has highlighted new talks with the Singapore government about this very subject. He points out that Singapore has experience of such a bubble with Australia and New Zealand, although it is not working at the moment because of very conservative virus elimination strategies in Australia. Even a single coronavirus case there can result in internal border closures as well as international bubble interruptions.

Meanwhile, Mario Hardy, chief executive of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, believes that Thailand and Vietnam could be the basis of the next travel bubble on the grounds that both countries have a good track record of containing the pesky virus. There have also been informal talks with Taiwan which has recently opened a travel bubble with the little-known Pacific island archipelago of Palau.

However, the chances of Thailand successfully opening travel bubbles with any tourist-orientated country soon are remote. China and Russia, which provided the majority of international visitors to Thailand prior to the pandemic, are in no hurry to dispatch their citizenry overseas lest they bring back a variant virus as well as their duty-free allowance.

Singapore is being courted by Thailand for a travel bubble.

Successive virus waves in Europe have flattened all talk of travel bubbles outside of the European Union borders, whilst Britain has made it currently illegal for its passport holders to go on holiday. Private deals between Thailand and India are also off the table as new cases in the sub-continent are averaging around 80,000 daily.

The alternative to travel bubbles with individual countries is the time reduction, or even abandonment, of quarantine restrictions for individual travellers. Thai authorities have now reduced supervised quarantine in hotels for vaccinated tourists from 14 days to 7 days. Most other travellers will see a reduction to 10 days, although 14 remain on the cards if coming from an infectious area in Africa or Latin America.

The Sandbox notion, whereby vaccinated travellers will avoid quarantine altogether, is scheduled to be piloted in Phuket starting in July. This assumes that at least 70 percent of the island’s population will have been vaccinated in advance of the starting gun which, at the time of writing, is not entirely clear. If all goes well, Pattaya and several other tourist-orientated provinces will have Sandboxes in October. Quarantine-free entry for all vaccinated foreign entrants is tentatively scheduled for January 2022.

Whether this optimistic scenario happens in practice depends on several factors, especially whether or not Thailand (or the world) faces serious clusters of variant infections between now and the end of the year. The bureaucracy associated with obtaining Thai visas abroad at Thai embassies, unless changed, is still cumbersome with some permits, but not all, requiring general medical insurance as well as Covid cover. It is still too early to predict when international Thai tourism will rebound.

The Taipei-Palau travel bubble is a rare success story.