From July 1, tourists can visit Phuket without quarantine for the first time since March 2020.
In Thailand’s much-discussed “sandbox” pilot, the largest island has reopened to vaccinated travelers willing to stick to a laundry list of rules designed to safely resume tourism amid the pandemic.
The plan depends on a concerted vaccination campaign to vaccinate 70% of Phuket’s population, a goal local authorities achieved earlier this month as 74% of the population were vaccinated.
Local media has questioned this number, which is in stark contrast to Thailand’s nationwide immunization rate of around 4%. But confirmed Covid cases have dropped dramatically in Phuket. The island saw single-digit daily cases this week, while Thailand reported its third highest daily case count – 5,406 infections – overall on June 27.
The “sandbox” plan makes Phuket a testing ground for protocols which, if successful, are likely to roll out in other parts of Thailand – and possibly other destinations in Southeast Asia – later this year.
A test of the tourists’ appetite for rules
But Phuket, like most of Southeast Asia, doesn’t make it easy for tourists to enter.
According to the Thai Tourism Authority (TAT), to avoid quarantine in Phuket, visitors must provide:
- A vaccination card with a vaccine approved by the World Health Organization or Thai Health Authorities issued at least 14 days prior to arrival; Children traveling with you are allowed
- A negative RT-PCR test (performed within 72 hours of departure)
- A minimum of $ 100,000 in health insurance to cover the stay
- An admission known as a certificate of entry to enter
- Proof of payment for a 14-day stay and necessary Covid tests or for a stay of less than two weeks, travelers must also present confirmed departures from Thailand
- Evidence that travelers have spent the past 21 days in a low or medium risk country on a list on the Thai Department of Disease Control website that is mainly in Thai
A selection of countries and territories on Thailand’s list
Australia, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Myanmar, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States
Source: TAT; updated June 29; List not exhaustive
Upon arrival, travelers must undergo a health screening and download a monitoring application called ThailandPlus. They also have to do and pay for a Covid-19 test and wait for the results at their hotel. Additional tests are required on travel day 6 or 7, for longer stays again on day 12 or 13.
Those who tested negative can travel freely around Phuket and other parts of Thailand after 14 days, as long as they practice social distancing, undergo temperature checks and wear masks, according to the tourism authority’s website.
Masks are required in public areas such as the beach and in cars.
Authorities recommend tourists to use SHA + restaurants and taxis in Phuket, but do not have to.
Pakin Songmor | Moment | Getty Images
Tourists are required to pay in advance and stay in hotels or host families that are “SHA +” certified, which means they have met safety and health agency measures and vaccinated more than 70% of the staff.
Anyone who tests positive “will be referred to specific health facilities at their own expense for medical treatment,” according to the TAT website.
More visitors than Rome in happier times
With almost 11 million arrivals, Phuket was the 15th most visited city in the world in 2019, according to a report by consultancy Euromonitor International entitled “Top 100 City Destinations”.
Wedged between Mumbai (No. 14) and Rome (No. 16), the island, with its estimated 420,000 inhabitants, towered above the list of international travelers but no domestic visitors, day-trippers and cruise passengers.
The entire travel industry awaits the reopening of Phuket.
Regional Director of Trip.com
Despite the island’s popularity, Phuket reopening is expected to be subdued. Spring Covid outbreaks in Thailand, combined with meandering schedules, rule changes, and late government approval for the “sandbox” program last week, may have put off summer tourists who have likely made other plans by now.
There is a preference for domestic travel and a persistent aversion to flying among countries returning summer, especially the types of long-haul flights required to reach Thailand from the United States or Europe.
Thailand’s neighbors are unlikely to pack their bags either. Tourism has not started in earnest again anywhere in Southeast Asia, where strict quarantines and sluggish vaccination campaigns have nearly ended the summer tourist prospects.
Unvaccinated tourists can visit Phuket but must be quarantined for 14 nights in designated hotels.
Pone-Pluck | Moment | Getty Images
That’s not good news for Thailand, as almost 72% of its overnight guests were from Asia in 2019, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. Almost a quarter of all tourists to Thailand come from China, which does not yet allow residents to travel freely for leisure tourism.
According to the Bangkok Post, 1,500 people are expected to arrive in Phuket, which would be a long way from the daily average of 25,000 tourists it received before the pandemic.
But it’s a start, and Thai officials hope to replicate it elsewhere soon.
With its sugar-sweet beaches and lively nightlife, Phuket isn’t the only “sandpit” Thailand has in the making.
The islands of Koh Samui, Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Tao were reopened to vaccinated travelers on July 15 following a similar scheme. The cultural enclave of Chiang Mai, a city in the north of the country, could soon follow suit.
If Thailand’s sandbox program proves successful, other countries could take similar action, said Jade Chandhakant, Trip.com’s regional director for Thailand and Vietnam.
According to the Thai Tourism Authority, direct flights to Phuket are operated by British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines and Thai Airways.
Pakin Songmor | Moment | Getty Images
“The entire travel industry is expecting Phuket to reopen,” he said. “We hope that the reopening of Phuket will mark the beginning of more ‘sandboxes’ and that this is a surefire way to resume recreational tourism in Southeast Asia.”
As for Thailand, whatever the outcome, the country may push for a reopening. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha indicated in a speech on June 16 that his goal was to open all of Thailand by mid-October.
He said Thailand “cannot wait for a time when everyone is fully vaccinated with two vaccinations to open the country or when the world is free of the virus”.
“I know there is some risk involved in making this decision because if we open up the country there will be an increase in infections no matter how good our precautions are,” he said. “Now is the time to take this calculated risk.”