PHUKET: Overseas tourists began pouring into Bangkok and the holiday island of Phuket on Monday as Thailand kickstarted its tourism industry after 18 months of Covid curbs.
The coronavirus pandemic hammered the kingdom's tourism-reliant economy, which last year saw its worst performance since the 1997 Asian financial crisis as arrivals dwindled more than 80 percent.
Thai authorities have given the green light to vaccinated tourists from over 60 "low-risk" countries to skip hotel quarantine -- providing the sector a much-needed lifeline.
Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport and Phuket's international terminal were the first on Monday morning to receive visitors, with mostly European tourists greeted by staff dressed in PPE gear to process their documents.
"We are very, very happy," Andre Winkler, 55, told AFP after he and his partner passed immigration in Bangkok.
"We stay in Thailand for six months every year for winter time because in Germany, it’s cold... The last time, before corona, we came to Thailand was 2019," he said. "It's been too long."
In Phuket, Susanne Peter, 57, said she and her partner will stay on the island for a week before moving on to Bangkok and Hua Hin, another beach getaway.
"We love the (Thai) people, they are really kind and really friendly," she told AFP, adding this was their first trip since the pandemic began.
Airports of Thailand -- which manages the country's international terminals -- said it expects Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi to receive 30,000 passengers on Monday.
Visitors are required to take a covid test upon landing, and spend a night at a government-approved hotel to await results before being allowed to travel freely across the kingdom.
- 'Return to normal' -
Thailand hopes to capitalise on travellers escaping the winter blues in December, with several European countries, the United States and China on the approved list.
"The most important thing that the government and I are thinking right now is to make people's livelihoods return to normal," Premier Prayut Chan-O-Cha said Friday.
Tourism accounts for nearly a fifth of the economy and the impact of the pandemic has reverberated across various sectors, from restaurants to transportation.
But authorities expect 10 to 15 million visitors to return next year, with revenues forecast to surpass $30 billion.
Industry insiders are less optimistic, however, especially with regional giant China -- the source of the lion's share of tourists -- still requiring returnees to undergo a strict quarantine programme.
Thailand is still registering about 10,000 Covid infections a day while only about 40 percent of the population have received two vaccine doses.
- 'Cannot be the same' -
Pre-pandemic Thailand saw nearly 40 million visitors arrive annually to stroll its sandy beaches, sample street food and enjoy its infamous nightlife.
A pilot re-opening scheme dubbed the "sandbox" kicked off in July, with Phuket allowing fully vaccinated visitors to roam the island paradise for two weeks before being allowed to travel to other areas of Thailand.
But it drew just 58,685 visitors in four months, a drop in the ocean compared to the numbers Thailand has come to expect.
Beachside vendors in Phuket were itching for a higher influx on the eve of the re-opening.
Dit, 18, who works at his uncle's sun lounge and juice bar on Kamala Beach, said their income was about $150 a day before the pandemic.
The business was forced to close for several months but reopened three weeks ago and is now generating about $30 a day.
"This (re-opening) will be better than the small sandbox tourist numbers, but we don't expect all the deck chairs to be filled straight away," he told AFP.
But in Koh Phi Phi -- a popular island stop on the booze-fuelled backpacker trail -- entrepreneurs were wary of a return to "business as usual".
"Before it was the cheapest tourists in the world and all they wanted was sex, drugs and alcohol," said Roger Andreu, who works at a dive shop.
"We need to make money but it cannot be the same."