Approved in December, “Golf Quarantine” aims to attract high-end travelers to the kingdom as it faces a new wave of COVID-19 infections while also building confidence that the country can safely welcome tourists over the long run.
“We want to build a good image, a brand that we are a golf paradise,” Thapanee Kiatpaibool, the deputy governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), told VICE World News. “When people see it, they will make Thailand the number one golf destination after the COVID situation normalizes.”
In 2019, Thailand saw about 40 million foreign visitors, who helped bring in more than $60 billion in tourism revenue. About 800,000 of them were international golfers, said Mark Siegl, the managing director of GolfAsian, one of the region’s leading tour operators for the sport.
While that only makes up a percentage of total visitors, Siegl said foreign golfers spend about three times as much as non-golfing tourists.
“They’re more luxury and that type of tourist that has a lot lower environmental impact. They’re not going to the sensitive environmental places like national parks and islands that are very sensitive to a large number of people,” Siegl said.
So far six resorts in the country, whose pristine courses have hosted international tournaments and nurtured the talents of several top Thai pros, have been approved to take part in the unique idea.
Starting at around $3,800 for an individual package, the price already limits itself to visitors in the upper-income bracket. Target travelers are luxury tourists with spending power from nearby, lower-risk countries like Japan, China and Korea.
With fresh waves of infection hitting many countries around the world even as vaccination campaigns ramp up, Thailand, which recently dealt with its own surge of cases, is not expecting golf quarantine numbers to skyrocket. But it is more about preparing for when COVID recedes in a part of the world where golf is only getting more popular.
The six certified resorts are the Mida Golf Club, Evergreen Hills Golf Club and Blue Star Golf Course, Artitaya Golf and Resort, Sawang Resort and Golf Club in and Artitaya Chiang Mai Golf. More courses including ones in Phuket, a beach town and former tourist hotspot pre-COVID, are currently being evaluated and may soon join the program.
While it may seem fancy, relaxed and no-frills, rules are strict.
Golfers will have to undergo a total of three COVID-19 tests during their mandatory two-week quarantine. The first swab happens as the visitor arrives in the country. After receiving a negative test result, they will be allowed to head out and golf on the course connected to their hotel. The second swab occurs on either the fifth or seventh day while the last one happens on the thirteenth or fourteenth, and final, day.
COVID-free, golfers can play up to 14 rounds, each with 18 holes. They will also have most of the course to themselves as players will be scheduled for different tee times throughout the day. While they can still play in groups, social distancing will be monitored.
Caddies come assigned to each guest. They have to wear protective gear, including face masks and gloves. They must also wash and change clothes before re-entering public spaces.
Quarantine guests cannot just freely roam around, however. The golf courses will be divided into zones and there will be designated areas where golfers can participate in other leisure activities.
There is also a load of paperwork to complete before anyone even steps on a plane. Preparations include obtaining either a Single-Entry Tourist Visa (TR) or a Special Tourist Visa (STV), medical and travel insurance, a fit-to-fly health certificate and a Certificate of Entry from an embassy or consulate. The golfer must also provide a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours prior to their arrival to Thailand.
While golfers can reach out to the hotels to book their quarantine themselves, the tourism authority has also partnered with Golf Digg, a startup platform for golf bookings, to make the reservation process easier.
So is anyone signing up?
According to the tourism authority, about 40 to 70 Korean travelers are scheduled to be the first group to undergo Golf Quarantine at the beginning of February. They are currently in the process of preparing necessary documents.
Since March last year, the pandemic has throttled Thailand’s vital tourist industry, which represents about one-fifth of the country’s economy. According to the World Bank, Thailand’s GDP is estimated to have dipped by 6.5 percent last year.
What’s more, 90 percent of the kingdom’s golf revenue comes from international travelers. They spend more time at the course’s pro shop buying souvenirs as well as eating and drinking at the clubhouse. Meanwhile, domestic golfers usually play at a discounted rate then leave to dine at local, more affordable restaurants.
The pandemic has been economically devastating for the kingdom’s golf industry. In the first two months of 2020, about 200,000 visitors visited the kingdom to play golf. After Thailand closed its borders to battle the COVID-19 pandemic in March, however, that number dwindled to zero.
Golf resorts that are participating in the quarantine are hopeful about the new initiative.
Sisamai Janhom, the coordinator at Artitaya Golf and Resort, sees the golf quarantine as a way to revive their business that she said has lost over 70 percent of their customers, mostly Korean travelers.
“I think this will be good because a lot of our employees had to take leave. ...There’s a risk but we must comply strictly to safety measures. We have to support the business in whatever way we can,” she said.