Readers' Submissions

Returning to Thailand as a “Normal” Tourist Part 2



 

  1. Thailand sacrifices its tourism Industry…

Thailand has managed to handle the Covid pandemic pretty darn well, at least with respect to the spread/containment of the disease. The doomsayers said Thailand “sacrificed” the tourism industry for the peoples’ health… in the same way they flooded the industrial estates to save Bangkok from the “nahm tuam” flood in 2011. The most notable (and impressive) difference between Covid and the “nahm tuam” is that 815 people lost their lives in the flooding (Wikipedia) and, so far, only 60 lives have been lost due to Covid.  I’m pretty sure Thailand took a pretty sizeable hit to tourism in 2011/2012, as well as GDP (due to all the shortages induced by the industrial park flooding). The street fruit went up 5 baht during the flooding and never came back down too. You can criticize Thailand all you want about how it “killed the tourism industry”, but “doom” was coming either-way. Covid killed the tourism industry and that death was in the cards regardless. Think about it, how many tourists would have wanted to board a long haul Covid invested airplane and end up in a Covid invested Nana plaza? Besides, Nana would have just been locked down, along with Pattaya, Phuket, anyplace those “westerner spreaders of disease” were interested in visiting.

In a number of ways the TAT and Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) did the tourism industry a favor… by fully closing travel down it was a shot to the head for a lame horse. If parts of the industry were not healthy enough to weather a full shutdown, they would have suffered worse with an 80% partial closure. Many businesses were able to let people go and go into hibernation… to re-open when tourism does. Trying to keep a business which was losing money open would have just prolonged the suffering. Yes, some people would have kept that job for a while longer… but eventually the host would die. Jobs would eventually be lost. CCSA continues to help the situation with the quarantine. The quarantine is essentially the only source of clients for large hotels and the quarantine has pretty effectively eliminated the (re)introduction of additional cases to the general population.

Instead, the COVID situation is “under apparent control” (or at least it was before the recent Myanmar invasion started). Bottom line is, enough of the Thai population fear the disease enough to keep masks on, and between that fear, and the conscious social distancing that actually IS going on, keeps whatever “undetected and underground” Covid spread at bay. If you DO catch Covid in Thailand… the tracers are going to crawl down your throat and out the back end of each and every mia-noi you have been with for the last 30 days… that’s reason enough to just “keep quiet and cure yourself”.

In the U.S. vaccinations are already in progress. They say “right around the corner” for me… well if you consider March or April a corner. With the current and justified priority queue, I would not be able to get in the jab line until the first of March. After that I need a second shot and another two weeks to develop my 95% immunity. At the earliest I would be establishing my peak immunity sometime in May, about the timeframe that Thailand is hoping to start its vaccination program. Now I’m not sure if anybody else out there is counting, but how many things has Thailand executed on-time during this pandemic? The Phuket model was late, failed, then cancelled. STV was late, failed and is still essentially a failure. Let me warn you in advance…“Past performance is not a guarantee of future results”, but in the case of the new Visa schemes and the May vaccination plans, I will just let the readers decide when “May” vaccinations might actually happen. Thailand will not be dropping the 2 week quarantine period anytime soon. When will they “truly” start letting the gates open? Nobody knows… The fact is, so far, everything they have historically scheduled… actually started happening between one or two months later than planned… or didn’t happen at all. So May becomes June, June becomes July… and so on.

There are other “math concerns”… for example “The cabinet on Tuesday gave permission for the Public Health Ministry to pay six billion baht and reserve 26 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine from AstraZeneca.”. The worldofmeters says the population of Thailand is 70 million and the AstraZeneca vaccine requires two shots to achieve the 90% efficacy (If that is even accurate… since that could be another mistake in their clinical trial). That’s 26 million ordered and about 120 million required. OK, maybe they are waiting for the price to come down (along with the demand)? Well, regardless, by May-June there will be a lot more vaccine candidate options to fulfill the demand.

Let’s “speculate” vaccinations start only one month late (June) and only take 4 months for both doses, then we are talking about a re-opening of around October. Four months for both doses + the two weeks to achieve peak immunity seems really, really aggressive, but we have to speculate something. By that timeframe, I don’t think vaccine supply will be an issue, it will be more of an “up-country” distribution and inoculation logistical problem. Thailand won’t be dropping the quarantine requirements until at least 80% of the population have been vaccinated. Because of the multi-generational aspect of family co-habitation in Thailand it is even more important that a higher percentage of the Thai population to establish immunity. Is everyone in the world going to wait around until Thailand finally announces that they are re-opening (without a quarantine) in order to plan their vacations? Well, maybe a certain older male population will… but families, couples, backpackers will probably have made their “high season” plans for elsewhere in the world. Perhaps 2021/2022 year will be a high season for a certain older male population …some plazas and streets will start ramping up again, but it sure isn’t going to be anything like Thailand really needs. Unfortunately, the first high season Thailand can hope to start seriously benefiting from will be high season 2022/2023. That’s two years in the future. That’s a LONG ways away for large struggling tourist industry.

Once Thailand “makes the announcement” to end the 2021 quarantine, whatever limited tourism that was about to happening will dissolve until the quarantine end date… adding one more blow to the tourism industry before it finally starts to ramp back up. If a new, more viral strain of the virus appears in the “west”… because the vaccinations cause the virus to “mutate to survive”, then we might even see an unplanned quarantine “after party” in Thailand. For 2021/2022 “high season” foreign tourists can be expected to show proof of both vaccination history, a Covid PCR test and a serology test showing antibodies present. They may even require both a Rapid Covid test and serology retest upon landing in Thailand. Serology is the only way to prove that the tourists won’t start re-infecting the local population. For 2021/2022 the longevity of the immunity which the vaccine induces probably won’t be well known/proven. Vaccination only means you will not develop significant complications IF you are exposed. It doesn’t mean you cannot be infected and therefore a carrier and potential spreader of the disease. For the foreseeable future, you will not be “just landing” in BKK and walking through immigration like we used to “enjoy”…. Ha ha… Yes, you (like I) will look back and think of “how easy it was” to just land and wait in a queue for one hour to get through immigration.

We can also expect several dozen new revisions to Visas to entice people to come and visit. They might even drop or suspend some of the ludicrous requirements for many of the new and existing ones… including enticing people to stay and renew… or get this… even enticing foreigners to RETIRE in Thailand!!!

 

  1. Return to Thailand Part 2, the Consulate Responds.

Monday morning about 10:00 AM I get the response from my local Consulate…

Your application is reviewed. In order to issue an appropriate visa and in compliance with relevant rules and regulations, please mail the original documents to the Royal Thai Consulate-General…

  1. Passport
  2. Two passport-size photographs (2″x 2″)
  3. Visa application form (Download) or attached file with this email (if applicant doesn’t have a valid Thai visa)
  4. Self-addressed return envelope and Money order for visa fee if the applicant doesn’t have a valid visa.

(The visa fee are as follows:
Single entry 40 USD for Tourist Visa & 80 USD for other types / Multiple entries 200 USD)

*Tourist Visa are permitted for single entry only at the moment

**Fee for retirement visa (O-A) is 200 USD since the validity of O-A visa is multiple entries only

***Fee is not required for Diplomat/Official/UNLP passport holders with visa “D” and Thailand Elite cardholders)

  1. Other required documents that you submitted through online application.*** Please check the list of documents from the Royal Thai Embassy’s website / Royal Thai Consulate-General in Chicago / Royal Thai Consulate-General in Los Angeles ***

Yours sincerely,

Royal Thai Consulate-General

 

Game on… that was quick. I immediately head to the drugstore and get two new passport photos. I write my name on the back of the pictures. I head to the post office, get the $40  money order and express mail envelopes, fill everything out and pay… close it all up…send. The Royal Thai Consulate should get my documents on Wednesday morning. With any luck, they will be able to post my COE and Visa back to me on that same Wednesday. Surely they can’t be that busy… it only took a few hours to review all my COE documentation. I might even get everything back by Friday or Saturday. If that’s the case, I could actually bring my departure forward by two weeks… before the “Christmas high-price blackout fares”.  I could be out of quarantine just after Christmas, and find myself a cute she-elf that’s been left behind by some Gunter Clause.

Great news, it’s now Wednesday morning, 9:30 AM and my documents are “out for delivery” to the Thai Consulate. I think to myself in a deep husky voice… “Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen”. I better start investigating the Covid test and fit-2-fly certs more, I may be able to leave in just a few days. My employer pays 100% of my telemedicine fees and by law my insurance is “supposed to pay 100%” of my Covid testing fees…

  • laboratory result indicating that COVID -19 is not detected, using RT-PCR test
  • Fit-to-fly/Fit-to-travel Health Certificate issued no more than 72 hours before departure

At 11:39 AM my documents were delivered at the Royal Thai Consulate, now I need to switch over to the return express mail tracking number to find out when it actually starts coming home. Unfortunately (at least in the past) the express mail package often arrives in my home mailbox before it shows up within the tracking website… so it may just be a case of “sit and wait” until it finally arrives.

The Royal Thai Consulate received my documents Wednesday morning, but unfortunately nothing happened until the following Wednesday when I finally received another email from them:

 

Dear Mr. Ree Turner,

Your visa has been approved. We are mailing your documents back to you. After you have obtained an E-ticket for one of the repatriation flights AND a booking confirmation from ASQ  please use the link below to upload them and fill out your itinerary.

Click to upload your E-ticket and ASQ booking confirmation

Royal Thai Consulate-General,

ASQ List Click here

 

Well, I had already uploaded my ticket and ASQ information, so I really don’t know what that request is all about, but regardless, my documents are on their way back with my Visa and COE (Certificate of Entry). Great news. I should receive all my required documents back from the Consulate in just 10 days.

My original ticket was for December 25th, that was the first day “after Christmas” which air fares came back down from the stratosphere. But now it looked like I would have my Visa and COE in-hand in just two more days… Friday… Saturday at the latest. I could move my flight forward to THIS SATURDAY, when fares were still pre-Christmas prices. All that remains is the Covid test and Fit-2-Fly certificate. I re-booked everything for Saturday. Rental Car to drive to the airport, Airplane ticket, ASQ reservation. No charges for any. This is where you need to make sure that you will not be charged for any changes. So far I have not read a single “Return to Thailand chronicle” that did not include either a re-schedule or an extreme panic ending scenario. I now understand why. For the Covid test, I would need to get tested on Thursday to get my results back on Saturday and be able to fly check in within 72 hours. I started looking for Covid test locations which gave tests AND test results back within 72 hours.

I ran into five Covid test types. For rapid tests there are two nose swab tests and there is also a rapid saliva test. Skip those, the airlines, immigration and Hotel won’t accept the Rapid tests at this point. On the Laboratory tests there is an NAA (Nucleic Acid Amplification) test, and finally the ONLY one acceptable to get on the Airplane is the RT-PCR laboratory test. The NAA test It is supposed to be composed of a PCR test and one other test, but the test results will say the lab test was NAA (not RT-PCR). It’s just best to find a testing location that will give you a document with “testing method: RT-PCR” written on the results. Here’s where the problem begins, you need to make the sure the test will be RT-PCR and results will be given in RT-PCR. In the U.S. two drugstore chains which are similar to Boots on the worldwide level, Walgreens and CVS both say they give RT-PCR test, but in the case of Walgreens (Walgreens/Labcorp), the results are documented as NAA with very limited wording that the NAA test was PCR. You don’t want to end up at the airport with anything other than a documented “RT-PCR” test. Neither Walgreens or CVS will guarantee your results in 72 hours, in fact, you really only have about 60 hours, as you need to print the form out and get yourself to the Airport with 4 or 5 hours to spare. As it turns out, your RT-PCR tests WILL NOT have an hour on them (or at least mine did not), they will only have a collection date, and a result date. THE 72 HOURS IS FROM THE COLLECTION DATE… NOT FROM THE DATE YOU GET THE RESULT. In short, you need to get tested two days before your flight, and you need to make sure your results will arrive before your flight date/time. I had 2 tests performed on a Thursday, one came back on Saturday at 1pm (a clinic test), and one came back around 3pm (Walgreens). Both were performed before 12pm, and they both got sent out that afternoon (I asked). You will probably need to ask about when the results are actually sent to the laboratory because that could make all the difference in getting your result back in time. My flight was at 7:45pm, so I would have probably missed my flight had I relied on the results I got back at 3pm. The “clinic” test was great, it came back at 1pm in the afternoon and had the RT-PCR test type documented. The only problem with the clinic results was that I had to physically go to the clinic to pick up the document. I also had another test performed at 8:30 am on FRIDAY from a hospital tent location, that one came back just before midnight on the Sunday which would have been 3 hours after my flight (had I re-scheduled to Sunday). The test results did say RT-PCR, but was more of a letter than official looking test results. I doubt it would have worked at the airport. No bother, it was not deliverable in a reasonable time period anyway.

I went to the clinic to pick up my 1pm test results. They looked great with official state lab testing logo at the top and RT-PCR as the test type. It was now 2pm on Saturday and I had the proper Covid test results documented in the proper time frame to board the plane. The only problem now was that my passport, visa and COE had still not arrived from the Consulate. The Christmas mail surge was “Grinching” my return. Actually, when I had not received my passport on Friday (normal express mail date) AND they were not showing up in the tracking app, I went ahead and delayed all my reservations until Monday (Monday was the last day non-Christmas pricing was valid on my airline). In addition to not having my passport on Friday, I didn’t actually know when I would be receiving my Covid results back. Because of the surge in Covid cases in the U.S. nobody would guarantee 72 hours and everyone would basically say 2 to 5 days. This was my “first” dry run. The good news was that I now knew which testing site could get my results back in time with the proper test documentation. The other two testing exercises had been a waste of effort.

It’s now Saturday @ 2pm and the earliest I could get re-tested at the clinic is Monday, so my next flight date could be Wednesday, two days after Monday. I should also get my documents back from the Consulate by then, the tracking finally started showing up in the postal system. The problem with Wednesday was the budget hit of an extra $400 more for my airline ticket. Well, the way things were going, my Covid tests might end up costing me more than the increased airfare. So far, all the testing sites just wanted my insurance card information. I decide to pay the additional air-fare and change my reservation for Wednesday. I didn’t want to wait two more weeks till the 25th for this adventure to start.

I call up the airline… they changed the ticket to the higher priced date… no questions asked… no increase in fare costs. The website said it would cost $400 more dollars…wtf? It looks like the airlines just wants to charge you more to BUY the tickets near the holiday. The tickets are not really in higher demand, the airline is simply demanding higher prices for he tickets. This was a very, very interesting lesson. If you can buy a ticket with “no change fee” NEAR the date you want to leave (at a lower prices) it might be more economical to do that. Then just change the ticket date to a “more expensively priced date”. Worst case, you have to pay the difference for the higher price for your target date… but you may just end up saving yourself some money.

On Monday I make a 9:00 AM appointment for Covid testing at the clinic, the previous test was performed at 11:50 AM and results returned by 1:00 PM. Perhaps an earlier test time would result in an early result time.

Tuesday is a very busy day. Tuesday morning I call the clinic to see what time the results normally arrive, they say that they call the patients as the results arrive from the testing laboratory, so I should call Wednesday morning around 11:00 AM (if I am not called first). The clinic person now knows my name and why I need negative results as soon as they arrive. Also, on Tuesday afternoon the package from the consulate FINALLY arrives. Next time I will probably pay an extra $40 for next day post, instead of the 3 day post I was using. Upon opening the package, I find my passport, Visa stamp inside the passport and Visa receipt. I look inside the package for a COE certificate, then I look inside my passport for some kind or COE certificate. Nothing. I call the Royal Thai Consulate. Try all the buttons on the phone. Nobody answers any extension. They are still scheduled to be open, just nobody answers. All I can do now is send them an email to explain my predicament. I’m scheduled to leave tomorrow and I do not have any COE.

Meanwhile, I need to get my Fit-2-Fly certificate entered. I download the example that the Consulate sent me (from https://thaiembdc.org/2020/07/23/faq-for-non-thais-wishing-to-enter-thailand-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/ ). I edit the PDF document and enter in all my information, flights, name, age, etc. I want to make this as easy and “least resistant” as I can for the urgent care doctor to complete. Basically, all he has to do is check a few boxes to indicate I have no medical symptoms and sign it. I call the clinic where I have been getting the Covid tests, they should have all my required information, right? Wrong. We don’t know your medical history, you will need to enroll and we need to request your medical records from your doctor. Ok, that’s not going to work. I call a different urgent care center I have been to before… “Sorry, we don’t do those, actually we wouldn’t know your medical history to be able to say you are Fit-2-Fly”. They suggested I call my family doctor and get them to do it. My family doctor is a 4 hour drive away. I have been going to the same doctor’s office since I was 9, the doctors have changed but they have around 45 years of my medical records. I explain the predicament I am in and sent them examples of the fit-2-fly certificates. I also sent them a picture of my temperature/thermometer reading and my last clinic covid test. FORTUNATELY, I had just visited my family doctor for a check-up and blood work about a week earlier. I told them I basically had a drop dead date for 12 noon tomorrow (Wednesday).

About 7pm that evening I get a reply from the Royal Thai Consulate regarding my missing COE…

 

Hi

We will issue you the COE via Email 3-6 days before you depart

Hmmm… well I’m scheduled to depart tomorrow. That’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy… “Trust me, you’re not going to be leaving until we issue your COE”.  I also seem to remember an email from them requesting me to upload my tickets and ASQ reservation…. I wonder if these are connected?

 

 

Dear Mr. Ree Turner,

Your visa has been approved. We are mailing your documents back to you. After you have obtained an E-ticket for one of the repatriation flights AND a booking confirmation from ASQ  please use the link below to upload them and fill out your itinerary.

Click to upload your E-ticket and ASQ booking confirmation

Royal Thai Consulate-General,

 

Ok, I guess I should take some of the heat for this…. I’ve been changing a lot of things on my end and never updating my information on the COE website… yeah, ok, that is my bad. However, something like the following message might have been more informative…

 

Your visa has been approved. We are mailing your documents back to you. After you have obtained an E-ticket for one of the repatriation flights AND a booking confirmation from ASQ  please use the link below to upload them and fill out your itinerary. We will issue your COE via Email 3-6 days before you depart based on this information !!!

Click to upload your E-ticket and ASQ booking confirmation

 

After I put all this information together, I upload my latest tickets and ASQ information to the COE website. I also emailed the information to the consulate based on the reply I received earlier. It’s around 8PM and there’s not much more I can do tonight. I make sure I have everything ready to go for tomorrow in case the “plan comes together”.

Wednesday morning I get the call from the clinic around 9AM, my results are in and negative again. I hop down to the clinic and pick up the results again. It’s now a Wednesday at the clinic (instead of a Saturday), so much busier, more forms to be filled out and temperature checks to be taken before I enter to get my results. I get my results and head out the door.  Something tells me to check them. They printed out my Saturday results again, I go back in and ask for the results from my Monday Covid test. They go print out another form and I confirm it, everything looks OK. On my way home from the clinic I swing by the Covid test site again to get another swab test. I still don’t have my COE or my Fit-2-Fly… I may be re-scheduling again.

I get home and prepare my bags. Promptly at 12:00 I get my fit-2-fly dated the same day as I am supposed to fly. That’s great, because if I have to delay again, I will still be able to use the same letter on Friday. I’m scheduled to pick up my car rental around 12:30. I get a rental receipt from Hertz around 12:10… I haven’t even picked up the car yet. At around 12:20pm I surrender the cause, with no response from the consulate and a pending car rental expense I call up the local Hertz Rental place (by now they also know my name too) and re-schedule for Friday. Same for the Airlines, then I send the new airline ticket to the ASQ hotel in Bangkok. I live about 3 hours away from the Chicago O’Hare Airport, and I need to drop off the car rental and catch a shuttle to the terminal. The drive and all takes about 4 hours, I probably need to be at the airline counter about 3 hours before departure. I don’t know if it is going to be a long drawn out process of confusion and chaos like I have heard elsewhere… or if it is going to be a ghost-town and I will be able to walk through like a VIP. Regardless, as the Royal Thai Consulate promised me, I won’t be going anywhere without my COE.

 

At 1:10 PM I get a response from the consulate:

 

Hi

We will issue you the COE + email you in 1hr

 

Now I have to inform them I had to change my tickets and ASQ again, I will now be leaving Friday… “If they send me the COE by then”!!!. They inform me they will issue my COE today (Wednesday), but I need to upload all the documents to the COE website, otherwise I at risk to not be accepted when I arrive in Thailand. They issue my COE about an hour later. As an FYI, the COE is actually issued for your date of departure and date of arrival. On Wednesday evening, my ASQ confirmation also comes through. I upload both Tickets and ASQ to the COE website. I also make sure all the other documents are still there and everything looks fine. Now it’s just a waiting game until Friday… I’ll just need to pick up my Covid test, rental car, and I will be on my way.

On Thursday evening I was printing out a duplicate of all my documents… just in case. I noticed that my Covid-19 insurance documents had a start date of Dec 27th. Fortunately, I remember the Covid insurance information saying my Insurance would become effective when I landed in Thailand. So this should not be a problem. But, I was now “landing” on the 20th and not the 27th, my insurance certificate should probably match my landing date. In retrospect I should have made the connection earlier, it would be taking effect on that date because it was both CONTRACTED for that date AND I WAS ARRIVING on that date. More frantic interactions on Thursday night with AXA ended in “buy another policy for the 20th and request a refund for the 27th, it will take 3 or 4 days to have the policy changed”. If I wanted to fly out tomorrow, this was the only way. I did as instructed and received the new Covid-19 insurance certificate. I then requested the refund on the prior policy.  It was about 1:00 AM, Friday morning… finally everything I needed (except for the Covid test results) was in order. Everything required for departure and arrival had been printed out in duplicate.

I had finally graduated from the “requirements” phase. The next phase was “transit”.

Some additional points which should noted:

  • I my actual departure date coincided perfectly with the 15 day scheduling limit imposed by the COE/consulate process. If I had the knowledge concerning the COE/Visa process which I am now dispensing to you, I might have been able to pull that back to 10 working days at best (using next day mail and scheduling an earlier flight). Might have… it is possible that the COE delivery issue could have negated that possibility too. Less than 10 days is an impossibility, this was the same case for the Chicago Consulate before Covid (for just the 60 day tourist visa process).
  • The 72 hour/2 day test limit was based on getting a test @ around 11:00 AM on one day and flying out @ 7:45 PM two days later. That’s actually about 56 hours from the “actual” times. If I had flown out a day later, that would be 56+24 or 80 hours. Based on the test results only showing the “sample collection date”, you may be able to fly 3 days after the test.
  • Spoiler alert… With regards to all the documentation that was required for this process, the ticket counter attendants at Chicago O’Hare did not shine a black light on any of my documents with regards to validity. They had their checklist (probably provided by the consulate), and they only checked that “the documents that were required had the specific items that were required on them”. I transited in Dubai, and there were absolutely no checks at the re-boarding gate there. The CCSA checks upon landing in BKK were of a similar detail to the departure airport ticket counter attendants.
  • If you decide to return to Thailand and you have problems finding a place to get Covid test results back in 72 hours (or are just lazy to look for a place), check with your local international airport. The airport may have on-site or drive through testing sites which will make sure you can get your results back in time. Chicago O’Hare was setting this up as I was leaving, but it was not yet live. I’ve heard other major airports have similar testing locations. Such locations will insure you get the proper documentation returned in the proper timeframe. https://www.flychicago.com/business/media/coronavirus/Pages/ordtest.aspx

 

The author of this article can be contacted at : [email protected]