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Thailand says hoping to help 100,000 tourists to stay longer

* Visa grace period ends on Saturday

* No foreign tourists arrivals since April due to ban

* Jan-Aug foreign tourist numbers down 75% y/y

BANGKOK, Sept 24 (Reuters) - Thai immigration authorities said on Thursday they would help more than 100,000 foreign tourists who were facing penalties for staying in the country too long, as a grace period expires six months after border and flight restrictions were imposed.

Thailand, which welcomed nearly 40 million tourists in 2019, halted commercial flights in April and banned foreign visitors in an effort to keep the coronavirus at bay, with repatriation flights infrequent and the only means of leaving the country.

Thailand had granted automatic visa extensions from late March to Sept. 26 to all foreigners, including workers.

“The government wants to take care of tourists left in Thailand and our legal team is looking at how to help those with overstay,” Immigration Bureau Commissioner Sompong Chingduong told Reuters.

“Personally, I think we should let them stay because their spending will help boost the economy,” he said.

Thailand had so far reported only 3,516 coronavirus infections, the vast majority of which have recovered.

In the January-August period, foreign tourist numbers tumbled 74.8% from a year earlier to 6.69 million, with spending down 74.3%, government data showed.

The record 39.8 million foreign tourists who visited Thailand in 2019 spent an equivalent of 11.4% of GDP.

The government last week approved visas of up to 270 days for long stay tourists and was preparing to reopen to some foreign visitors from next month, although that could be delayed.

“The long stay visa may not start on Oct.1 but later in the month as we need some preparation,” Yuthasak Supasorn, governor of The official Tourism Authority (TAT), told Reuters.

The TAT predicted foreign tourist numbers at 6.7 million this year, and 20.5 million next year, which is far above the central bank’s 9 million estimate.

The central bank forecast Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy will shrink by a record 7.8% this year due to the tourism slump. ($1 = 31.62 baht)

Reporting by Orathai Sriring, Panarat Thepgumpanat and Satawasin Staporncharnchai; Editing by Martin Petty

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