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Coronavirus: Thailand and Hong Kong to open talks on setting up 'travel bubble'

Thailand and Hong Kong are to hold talks on establishing a so-called travel bubble, with the country starting to ease border restrictions as the coronavirus pandemic loosens its grip in the region.

The Hong Kong government on Monday welcomed the move towards opening up travel between the two destinations, saying discussions with the Thai authorities would start within the next fortnight.

From Wednesday, a handful of short-term business travellers will be allowed into Thailand from five jurisdictions, including Hong Kong, according to Chinese state media Xinhua.

But a comprehensive bilateral agreement between the city and Bangkok also covering tourists is to be negotiated in the coming days.

Thailand's Deputy Secretary General to the Prime Minister for Political Affairs, Dr Kobsak Pootrakool, revealed the plan during an online business forum jointly organised by Thailand Board of Investment and the Hong Kong government, although no specific details were offered on how the corridor might work.

Referring to the "travel bubble" with Hong Kong during a separate briefing, Natapanu Nopakun, from Thailand's foreign affairs ministry, said: "There will be special arrangements done through bilateral agreements and travel bubbles which will involve four countries and one territory for short-term business visitors.

"The implementation will still need to be discussed in practical terms."

"This special arrangement will initially allow entry to 200 inbound travellers per day," said CCSA spokesman Dr Taweesin Visanuyothin.

Hong Kong commerce minister Edward Yau Tang-wah, who attended the webinar, said the prospect of a bilateral travel deal was "very encouraging news for both Hong Kong and Thailand".

"If the special relaxation arrangements for cross-border control can be established between the two places, cross-boundary business exchange can be gradually resumed for Hong Kong, which is set to give a tremendous boost to our economic recovery," he said.

Thailand has been a popular holiday destination with Hong Kong people. Over the past five years, an annual average of nearly 900,000 Hongkongers have visited Thailand. More than 500,000 visit Hong Kong from Thailand a year.

Yau said: "We are keen to explore with the government of Thailand the special travel arrangement.

"We are confident that we can reach an agreement expeditiously and become one of each other's first partners of the special travel arrangement for cross-border control."

Hong Kong is also working towards a deal with mainland China and Macau to create travel bubbles, to start the process of reopening the city to travellers.

If successful, Thailand will be the first overseas country to form a travel bubble with Hong Kong.

"The relevant discussion will touch on details of the relaxation measures for cross-border control, specific operation arrangements to reduce the risks of spreading the virus across the borders, the provision of transport services and more," Yau added.

The Hong Kong negotiation team will be led by the commissioner for tourism and include representatives from the Food and Health Bureau, the Transport and Housing Bureau, and the Department of Health, according to the city government.

Hong Kong legislator Yiu Si-wing, who represents the tourism sector, said it was an encouraging sign for the city's "frozen" tourism sector.

"It is hoped that Thailand and Hong Kong can strike a deal in July, starting with allowing business travellers. Then maybe we can deal with usual tourists. Both sides may try to work out a quota system, say, allowing a specific number of tour groups from Hong Kong every day," Yiu said.

"The deal with Thailand will also set a good precedent, and we may be easier to form similar travel bubbles with other places afterwards."

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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