By Gaspar Ruiz-Canela
Bangkok, Nov 23 (EFE).- Thailand’s main tourist attractions remain half empty, although the number of visitors has been gradually increasing since the country opened its borders to fully vaccinated travelers from more than 60 countries this month.
The authorities also took advantage of its pandemic border closures to advocate for a more environmentally sustainable reopening focused on fewer visitors but with greater purchasing power.
Tourism, which until the pandemic accounted for up to 20 percent of the Thai GDP, plummeted from 40 million visitors in 2019 to just 6.7 million in 2020, a drop of more than 80 percent, due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.
Although tourist arrivals are now increasing, iconic landmarks in the capital Bangkok, such as the Grand Palace and the Temple of Dawn (Wat Arun) remain almost deserted, hurting businesses and workers in the sector but offering some advantages to visitors.
“You can go to places, it’s not so crowded, there is access to everything. I think it’s quite nice,” Mattias Ekstroem, a 40-year-old Swedish tourist, tells Efe.
Ekstroem arrived on the island of Phuket on Nov. 5 and plans to return to his country later this month.
“In Phuket, you don’t see many tourists. Where I was staying, eighty percent of bars and restaurants were closed,” explains the Swede, who works as a tour guide in his country.
While Ekstroem enjoys the lack of queues at the Grand Palace in Bangkok’s historic center, Niu Nin, the owner of a clothing store in front of the monument’s entrance, laments the lack of visitors.
“We have been closed for many months. There are still not many tourists,” says the 85-year-old salesman in his little shop, the only one open on the street.
On Nov. 1, Thailand began to apply a one-day quarantine period to fully vaccinated arrivals from 63 countries and territories, including all European Union members, all of Southeast Asia, Chile, the United States, the United Kingdom, China and India, among others.
The Southeast Asian country has been a mecca for mass tourism and backpackers, who benefit from cheap hostels, transport and food combined with adventures on tropical islands, in jungles or among Buddhist temples, and a famously hedonistic nightlife.
However, the authorities now want to take advantage of the paralysis of the sector to promote a new type of tourism that is less crowded but with higher spending per traveler.
On its website, the Bank of Thailand advocates that the country promote domestic and niche travel, such as medical, business, green and community tourism, and also for digitization to strengthen the sector in the face of crises such as the pandemic.
In a report, the bank proposes an increase in average spending per tourist per trip from around $1,450 in recent pre-pandemic years to $1,810-$2,115.
The central bank argues that with higher spending, Thailand could increase income while reducing the numbers of tourists.
A major stumbling block to incentivize the sector is travel restrictions in China, which accounted for nearly a third of foreign tourists arriving in Thailand in 2019.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, China has prohibited the departure of groups of tourists from the country. For people returning, a number of Covid-19 tests are required as well as a quarantine period of at least two weeks.
After more than a year of restrictions, the Thai authorities have lifted almost all those on travel and economic activity to revive the economy, which fell 6.1 percent last year.
However, some Thais fear that the opening of the borders will create more Covid-19 outbreaks, which have so far caused more than 2 million infections and 20,400 deaths in the country, most of them just since April.