BANGKOK (The Straits Times/Asia News Network): The streets of Bangkok are buzzing with start-stop traffic and thronging crowds as Thailand rounds off its first week of relaxed border controls that waive quarantine for travellers from more than 60 countries and territories.
Tourist attractions, merchants and restaurants that had been shuttered for a good part of the year are now cracking open their doors again, cautiously optimistic for a revival in a sector that in 2019 brought in more than 1.91 trillion baht (S$77.6 billion).
The nation's reopening on Nov 1 and Bangkok's hot weather lured sports teacher Christian Schubert, 40, to escape the chill of Germany's autumn.
"The world has waited long enough for Covid-19 to be under control, and I feel like it's finally time to travel," said Schubert, who was wandering in the complex of Bangkok's Grand Palace barely 24 hours after touching down on Wednesday (Nov 3).
"It's a good time to come before the crowd of mass tourism returns."
Already, about 16,000 foreign arrivals have entered Thailand through the various travel schemes that were expanded since Nov 1, with most coming from the United States, Germany, Britain and Japan, said the authorities.
Fully vaccinated air travellers from approved countries and territories can enter the kingdom without undergoing quarantine.
Instead, they will take a Covid-19 test upon landing and spend a night at a government-approved hotel where they have to wait for a negative result before they can travel freely in Thailand.
Those coming from places not on the quarantine-free list can enter via one of the 17 "sandbox" provinces, where they can roam quarantine-free but must remain in the province for a week before travelling elsewhere.
But genuine holidaymakers such as Schubert will remain a rare breed for the time being, those in the tourism sector told The Sunday Times.
"It's still early. Most people who will enter Thailand right now are either Thai people, returning residents or those travelling for practical reasons, like business trips," said Thai Hotels Association (THA) president Marisa Sukosol Nunbhakdi.
Freelance tour guide Taweesak Sattayankarn, 70, who returned to ply his services outside the Grand Palace and the nearby Wat Phra Kaeo temple on Monday (Nov 1), said most of the visitors to the area are domestic tourists.
"I haven't really seen any foreign tourists yet," said Taweesak, noting that the palace used to see some 20,000 visitors daily, but now sees about 100 or so.
Thais and Thai residents abroad have also been eagerly awaiting the easing of border controls to avoid lengthy quarantines upon return to Thailand.
Among them was digital marketer Rampi Murthy, 59, who arrived in Thailand from India on Nov 3, after lockdowns and restrictions in both countries repeatedly foiled his plans to return to Bangkok, where his family lives.
"Honestly, I think it is a hassle to go through all the required paperwork and take the risk (to travel) just for a holiday to Thailand right now," said Murthy.
He said he had trouble booking a flight from Mumbai to Bangkok, and thinks the lack of international flights could also affect the number of travellers to Thailand.
Additionally, Thailand's new entry system for incoming travellers that was launched on Nov 1 has also run into problems, such as system errors and long wait for e-mails confirming their applications, as some have taken to social media to complain about.
Thai authorities said they are working to improve the Thailand Pass registration process.
Over 65,000 people have registered for the pass since Nov 1, with approval already granted to more than 12,000 travellers set to arrive in the coming weeks.
This is a vast improvement over the 73,000 tallied in the first eight months of this year, but a mere fraction of the almost 40 million visitors in 2019.
"The number of visitors expected in the coming months cannot compare with pre-pandemic figures," said THA's Marisa.
"But if we wait any longer, the disruption to the tourism industry will be unimaginable. Many hotels, even the big ones, are barely keeping afloat."
She expects foreign tourist numbers to pick up only in December, when those from Europe seek escape from the winter season and when travellers become more familiar with Thailand's entry requirements.
Chinese tourists who formed the mainstay of Thailand's inbound travellers are also unlikely to return soon, as China upholds its curbs on outbound travel.
Last year, the number of Chinese tourists fell by 88.6 per cent from 2019's numbers.
Their presence is sorely missed, said tuk tuk driver Prisha, 53, who used to pick up many Chinese tourists along Bangkok's Yaowarat Road, also known as Chinatown, before the pandemic.
"Locals don't care about taking a tuk tuk," said Prisha, who goes by one name.
Bangkok's famous party scene in areas such as Khaosan Road or Soi Cowboy, once overflowing with music, alcohol and merry-makers, have mostly gone dark following a months-long alcohol ban.
Only restaurants and eateries with government certification can serve alcohol until 9pm. Pubs, bars and karaoke lounges will remain closed until Dec 1.
A 30-year-old bar hostess from an adult entertainment club along the Soi Cowboy stretch who gave her name as Phet said she returned to Bangkok from her home town of Surin a few weeks ago.
"I wish we can return to work soon. I miss those days," she said.
Mandatory quarantines for visitors in their country of origin or government travel warnings could also discourage would-be tourists to Thailand.
But some, such as Singaporean Peter Tay, 56, who before the pandemic used to travel to Thailand at least once a month, are undeterred.
Currently, travellers entering Singapore from Thailand have to do a 10-day stay-home notice at a dedicated facility.
Tay, who is retired and previously worked in sales, arrived in Bangkok on Nov 1 and plans to stay for at least 2½ months to visit other provinces.
When asked if he was worried about contracting Covid-19 while travelling, Tay, who is fully vaccinated, said: "Life is short, if you don't play now, where will you find the time?"