Thailand is open – for those who conquer their digital travel pass
After sealing its borders to most visitors in March 2020, Thailand has reopened its doors to people from 63 countries tested negative for Covid-19 and fully vaccinated.
“Thais are so friendly, so welcoming and of course the food is just amazing”, actor Russell Crowe gushed on Twitter, when he visited the kingdom last month before the restrictions were lifted on November 1. It’s a popular opinion: in 2019, Thailand hosted a record-breaking nearly 40 million visitors and Bangkok was the most visited city in the world, according to an international survey, before the pandemic put an end to the party.
The government is betting that after nearly two years of confinement, travelers are eager to return to the country’s beaches, bazaars and nightclubs. But first, they need to successfully navigate the Thailand Pass, an online check-in system that many complain about and features an atrocious user interface. “An epic failure in the design of the system,” said a commentator on an online forum used by people dealing with the system.
The platform was intended to ensure immediate approval of people with sorted vaccination certificates, hotel reservations, proof of insurance and other documents. Instead, many users have encountered issues including overwhelming error messages, problems downloading PDFs, and delays that put them at risk of missing their flights.
On the “Thailand Reopening” Facebook page, which has over 13,000 members, users exchanged tips for converting PDF to JPEG and Thai dates to Western dates (year 2021 is 2564 here) and overcoming others. Thailand Pass obstacles. The process was, to borrow the slogan of the struggling national airline Thai Airways, anything but “Smooth as Silk.”
“It’s a great idea, but without the perfect technology you really need someone to help you with a jam,” said Nikki, a US-based clearance pending candidate who requested that his last name is not used. “Thai Pass doesn’t have that, which can seem hopeless and frustrating.”
I got a taste of this myself last month when I went on vacation to the US and then applied for an entry certificate, the precursor to the Thailand Pass. After meticulously uploading my documents, the system rejected my application for a technical error and blocked me from accessing the site. (A helpful Thai diplomat saved the day by offering to download my documents herself, then happily overrode the computer’s “no”.)
crybaby farang (Westerners) who complain about poor service are part of the Thai landscape, with its large and often authorized expat community. But Thais living abroad have their own complaints. “The system does not offer any contact number, and it does not provide an appeal process,” said a Singapore-based Thai professional who goes by the pseudonym Ta. “It doesn’t tell us what to do if we miss our flights because of the Thailand Pass, and it’s all the more annoying since it’s now mandatory to pay everything in advance.
The bugs are a bad aspect for a country looking to transform into “Thailand 4.0” – the government’s plan to harness digital technology to achieve economic take-off in sectors ranging from agriculture to start-ups. Tourism, which generated around a fifth of GDP before the pandemic, is at the heart of the country’s recovery. Yet rather than the cheap and cheerful product that Thailand is famous for, authorities want to raise its standard, including through a 10-year visa program targeting high net worth professionals and retirees, a demographic group likely to be in need of help. ‘demand top-notch service.
The Thai Foreign Ministry acknowledged the “technical difficulties” faced by Thailand Pass users, and said improvements were underway. The statement, however, had distinct connotations of blaming the client; among other things, applicants had to fill out online forms or upload vaccination documents incorrectly, forcing officials to verify the documents manually. Some have been reprimanded for registering multiple times “confusing the review process”.
Flattery is a cold comfort to those like Ta, who has yet to reunite his family. “I am still awaiting the outcome of my Thailand Pass request,” he said. “And praying.”