Thailand looks to welcome tourists again, though less than half its population is fully vaccinated

Tourist sitting on a swing at a beach in Thailand.

© Marco Bottigelli | Moment | Getty Images

Come Monday, Thailand will be lifting quarantine restrictions for travelers from more than 40 countries who have been fully vaccinated — even though less than half its population has been completely inoculated.

As of Oct. 27, only about 42% of Thailand’s population has been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, according to Our World in Data. In comparison, other countries in the region like Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore have had more than 70% of their population fully inoculated against Covid.

The three Southeast Asian nations as well as Australia and China are on Thailand’s list of approved countries, as the country prepares to reopen to tourists on Nov. 1.

Following the Thai prime minister’s initial announcement of the plan earlier in October, Bank of America economists said it was good news for Thailand’s tourism sector, economic recovery and currency — but noted that it was “not without risk.”

As is evident in the other countries, the vaccination rate is way too low to prevent an outbreak, particularly with the Delta variant.

“Despite an impressive and admirable vaccination effort, full vaccination remains relatively low and uneven,” the economists said. “As is evident in the other countries, the vaccination rate is way too low to prevent an outbreak, particularly with the Delta variant.”

Still, they said a lockdown is not expected given the country’s high risk tolerance, unless the country’s intensive care unit capacity becomes overwhelmed.

Due to the uneven inoculation rate throughout the country, the available data may not reflect clearly the vaccination levels in places such as the capital of Bangkok. The deputy governor of Bangkok Metropolitan Administration recently told Singapore-based media outlet CNA that 75% of its residents have already been vaccinated with the second dose.

Tourism’s importance to Thailand

Among the region’s economies, Thailand is one of the “most dependent” on tourism, with the sector accounting for around 21% of GDP in 2019, according to Oxford Economics’ Sian Fenner.

“Travel restrictions have come at a huge economic and social cost and has been a key reason why Thailand’s economic recovery has lagged behind many of its peers in the region,” said Fenner, lead Asia economist at the global advisory firm.

… we do not expect a full recovery in inbound travel to pre-Covid levels until 2025.

Sian Fenner

lead Asia economist, Oxford Economics

“We think the government’s reopening of borders despite only about 40% of the population fully vaccinated reflects the country’s significant reliance on foreign tourists,” said Charnon Boonnuch, an economist at Nomura.

The Thai economy grew 7.5% year-on-year in the second quarter, according to government data. That growth level fell behind other regional economies such as Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines which grew between 11.8% and 16.1%.

Oxford Economics forecasts a full year GDP growth of 1.8% in Thailand this year, while Nomura sees Thailand’s GDP growth in 2021 at 0.6%.

The return of international travelers, however, is not expected to be immediate as visitors may still face quarantine requirements in their home countries, according to economists.

“We do expect inbound tourism to rebound in 2022, but even then we still expect international arrivals to be some 66% below 2019 levels,” Fenner said. “In fact, we do not expect a full recovery in inbound travel to pre-Covid levels until 2025.”

Meanwhile, Bank of America economists highlighted that Chinese tourists — which accounted for about a quarter of Thai tourist arrivals in 2019 — are not expected to return till the second half of 2022.

China has largely closed its borders to international travel since last year and continues to pursue a strict zero-Covid strategy that has resulted in mass lockdowns even if only a few infections are reported.

Other parts of Southeast Asia are also looking to reopen their borders to international visitors, and that likely played a part in Thailand’s push to welcome tourists again, according to Nomura’s Boonnuch.

“The need for reopening was also rising due to increasing competition from neighboring countries which have relaxed border rules, such as Singapore which has a much higher full vaccination rate of 85%,” he said.

Singapore has announced vaccinated travel lane arrangements with several countries including the U.S. and U.K., while Malaysia’s tourism minister told CNBC last week that the country could reopen its borders to international tourists in November.

Correction: This story has been updated to accurately reflect that the Bank of America note came out earlier in October, after the prime minister’s announcement.

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