Before the pandemic, Phuket was a tourism gem. At the height of the travel season, the Thai island’s white beaches were flooded with vacationers from around the world. Wealthy visitors filled five-star restaurants and backpackers bar-hopped into the early hours of the morning.
That all vanished as borders closed and Thailand’s vital tourism industry, which used to bring in nearly 40 million people a year, disappeared almost overnight. But on Thursday, Thailand launched a comeback focused on the southern island, calling it the “Phuket Sandbox.” International travelers can now visit without quarantine as long as they are vaccinated and pass multiple COVID-19 tests, among other paperwork.
There’s been an enormous amount of buzz over the opening, as media crews lined up at the airport to capture the first arrivals, and celebratory water sprays splashed one of the first airplanes on the tarmac.
Travelers are pumped too. Gregory Padrusch, a 41-year-old who has visited Thailand before, said he took to the opportunity “like a bat out of hell.” Speaking from New York ahead of his trip this week, he is one of hundreds set to arrive over the first few days, avoiding the strict two-week quarantine in other parts of Thailand. Tourists from abroad do have to stay in Phuket for 14 days before leaving the island, but are free to roam about while there.
“I hope it [the Sandbox Plan] helps the economy and the people who are in desperate need of help, money, and reignites the tourism industry,” Padrusch added.
So does the Thai government, which is aiming for a full reopening of the country in October, citing “economic needs” despite acknowledging the inevitability of more COVID-19 cases. The country’s tourism industry, a sector accounting for almost a quarter of the economy, provides jobs in hotels, restaurants and travel firms. All have been hit hard by pandemic-related closures that have shrunk the economy by the largest amount since the Asian financial crisis more than two decades ago, Bloomberg reported.
But the opening is also coming at a sensitive and risky time. Cases in Thailand are on the rise due to clusters found at entertainment venues. Authorities are logging thousands of daily infections, and the Southeast Asian country just reported its highest daily number of deaths to date, 57 out of a total of 1,970. Though still far better off than the human toll seen in other countries such as the United States, Brazil and India, Thailand’s latest surge has been its worst since the virus was first detected in the country in January 2020.
Thai government spokesperson Anucha Burapachaisri told VICE World News that there is confidence that the Phuket plan will boost the economy. He added in a statement that Thailand should expect roughly 100,000 foreign tourists to fly to the country under the Sandbox scheme from July to September 2021. Rules also allow for domestic tourism.
Hopeful visitors will have to jump through a series of bureaucratic hurdles. An outbreak could also scupper the vision, though Phuket has been on a widespread vaccination drive that has outpaced much of the country in preparation for the opening.
First, foreigners must provide a Certificate of Entry (COE), a letter issued by a Thai embassy or consulate to allow a foreign visa holder to enter Thailand. Visitors must also provide proof that they’ve been fully vaccinated in their home countries. They’ll also need to test negative 72 hours before departure and have proof of an insurance policy that covers treatment for at least $100,000. After landing, tourists will have to take three COVID-19 tests during their stay, all on their own dime.
Travelers must book a hotel approved under the scheme for 14 nights before they are free to leave Phuket and travel elsewhere in Thailand. They also have to use location tracing applications during their stay.
Bill Barnett, the founder of hospitality consultancy C9 Hotelworks and a longtime expert on the industry in the Asia-Pacific, told VICE World News that there’s cautious optimism about the plan.
“I think we have to learn to travel with COVID, we have to learn to get back to our lives,” he said. “So this is a good case study on how to do this, but this isn’t the answer for Thailand just opening Phuket, it’s a small segment of the Thai economy, so it has to be something broader.”
“I think we have to learn to travel with COVID, we have to learn to get back to our lives.”
The ravages of the last year may mean any help is welcome.
Marisa Sukosol, president of the Thai Hotel Association, recently told the Associated Press that “we are on survival mode, and hanging by a thread — literally.”
Padrusch, who is a musician by trade, said it was a full-time job to gather all the necessary documents for his trip from the U.S.
“I received mine [COE] after nearly a night of no sleep,” he said. “I was still calling hotels across the world, waiting hours to finally get someone at my local [Thai] embassy to pick up the phone while I was in my car waiting to get my final COVID test.”
But pushing through all of the obstacles before boarding a flight are worth it to able to visit and not be cooped up in a hotel room.
“I’ve been coming to Thailand for the last twenty years,” he said. “And I just love the country and the people there.”