Thailand aims to turn away from mass tourism and target the wealthy

The tourism sector will account for about 6% of GDP this year, down from 18% last year

TOPSHOT - Traditional Thai dancers wearing protective face shields perform at the Erawan Shrine, which was reopened after the Thai government relaxed measures to combat the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, in Bangkok on May 4, 2020. Thailand began easing restrictions related to the COVID-19 novel coronavirus on May 3 by allowing various businesses to reopen, but warned that the stricter measures would be re-imposed should cases increase again. / AFP / Mladen ANTONOV

Thailand’s tourism-revival strategy is to target big spenders seeking privacy and social distancing in the Covid-19 era, rather than try to attract a large number of visitors.

The pandemic provides an opportunity to reset the sector, which had become reliant on Chinese groups and backpackers. Once the country’s borders are reopened, marketing efforts will be geared towards wealthier individuals who want holidays with minimal risks, Tourism Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn said in an interview.

The government will initially allow a small number of arrivals, such as some business executives and medical tourists. It is also working with the travel industry to identify and invite individuals in target demographics, the minister said.

People may be required to pass Covid-19 screenings before travelling and upon arriving, choose a single resort island and remain for a minimum period of time.

The “high-end visitors” will be able to travel freely while they are on the island and be allowed to leave for home or other destinations in Thailand once the minimum 14 days have passed.

The country plans to court such visitors, possibly during the winter months of November-February when European and American travellers seek out warmer climates, said Mr Ratchakitprakarn.

“One person can easily spend as much as five by staying at the finest hotels,” he said, adding that full and free travel should become a “thing of the past.”

Thailand isn’t the only country grappling with the question of how and when to reopen for visitors. Across Southeast Asia - one of the most tourism-reliant regions in the world - hotels and travel businesses are slowly kicking into gear as countries that have succeeded in flattening their virus curves ease lockdown restrictions.

Thailand’s first few travel-bubble pacts, with nations such as Japan and Australia, probably won’t be ready until at least August, said Mr Ratchakitprakarn.

Thailand is also considering a programme to allow visitors from specific Chinese cities and provinces, he said.

The goal is for Thailand to have 10 million foreign arrivals this year - one-quarter of the 2019 tally, the minister said. Total tourism revenue is forecast at $39.6 billion (Dh145.3bn) this year, down 59 per cent from last year.

The tourism sector will account for about 6 per cent of gross domestic product in 2020, down from 18 per cent last year, Mr Ratchakitprakarn said.

The dearth of travellers is one reason Thailand’s economy is forecast to contract as much as 6 per cent this year. The government is rolling out stimulus worth 15 per cent of the GDP, according to World Bank estimates.