By Orathai Sriring and Kitiphong Thaichareon

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thailand’s economy returned to growth in the fourth quarter, rebounding more quickly than expected, on robust exports and a recovery in domestic activity following an easing of coronavirus curbs and as borders reopened to foreign visitors.

The government maintained its economic growth outlook at 3.5%-4.5%, counting on a limited impact from the Omicron-driven coronavirus outbreak, stronger domestic demand, a recovery in tourism and continued support from exports and public investment.

In 2021, Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy grew 1.6%after a 6.1% contraction in 2020.

Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy expanded a seasonally adjusted 1.8% in the December quarter from the previous three months, data from the National Economic and Social Development Council showed, outstripping a forecast 1.4% increase in a Reuters poll, and after a revised seasonally adjusted 0.9% contraction in the third quarter.

From a year earlier, gross domestic product (GDP) grew 1.9% in October-December, beating a forecast 0.7% rise, and against a revised 0.2% contraction in the previous three months

Thailand resumed a quarantine waiver for foreign tourists this month to help its vital tourism sector, which normally accounts for about 12% of Thai GDP.

Exports, a key driver of Thai growth, jumped 21.3% in the December quarter from a year earlier while private consumption rose 0.3%. There were about 340,000 foreign tourists in the fourth quarter of 2021, up from 45,000 in the previous three months.

The state planning agency expected 5.5 million tourists in 2022, increased from a forecast of 5 million in November.

(Reporting by Orathai Sriring, Kitiphong Thaichareon and Satawasin Staporncharnchai; Editing by Sam Holmes, Ed Davies)