BANGKOK: The popular resort island of Phuket in southern Thailand reopened to international tourism on Thursday (Jul 1) after COVID-19 halted arrivals for more than a year.
Tourists are no longer required to undergo any quarantine if they have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus in their country for at least 14 days and test negative upon arrival.
“Tourists will have to wait for the result in their hotel room. If it’s negative, they’re free to go,” said Phuket Tourist Association president Bhummikitti Ruktaengam.
"They can travel freely but it has to be within Phuket. If they wish to visit other parts of Thailand, they need to spend at least 14 days in Phuket first."
Also known as the Pearl of the Andaman Sea, Phuket became the first province in Thailand to welcome back international tourists without quarantine requirements. This is part of an experimental tourism model called Phuket Sandbox, designed to help the economy recover from the pandemic.
According to Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) governor Yuthasak Supasorn, the southern island was chosen to pioneer the model because of its readiness, strong reliance on international tourists and geographic insularity.
It is also one of the preferred destinations among overseas travellers besides Bangkok, Samui, Krabi, Pattaya, Hua Hin and Chiang Mai, based on a survey by TAT.
REQUIREMENTS FOR FOREIGN TOURISTS
Besides being fully vaccinated, international tourists wishing to visit Phuket from Jul 1 have to meet several other requirements.
They must obtain a certificate of entry (COE) at the Thai embassy where they are from. Then, within 72 hours before flying to Thailand, they need to get a certificate showing negative COVID-19 test results.
Children aged below six travelling with their parents can enter the province without prior vaccination against COVID-19.
Insurance coverage of no less than US$100,000 is also required for healthcare and treatment expenses related to COVID-19 while they stay in Thailand.
Before boarding their flight to Phuket, tourists must get a confirmation letter from hotels certified by the Thai government. If their stay is less than 14 nights, they need to present a confirmed flight ticket out of the country.
Once in Phuket, tourists are also required to take three COVID-19 tests – first upon arrival, another one a week later and the last one near the end of their second week. The tests can be done at certified hotels or partner hospitals.
If they test positive, tourists will be transferred to healthcare facilities for treatment.
They also have to download the mobile applications ThailandPlus and MorChana for tracking purposes during their stay.
MORE THAN 120,000 FOREIGN VISITORS IN 3RD QUARTER
Phuket heavily relies on international tourists. In 2019, they made up 73 per cent of the total of 14.55 million visitors, based on data from the Phuket Provincial Statistical Office.
This means when the government banned international commercial flights in April last year to control the pandemic, the resort island was hit hard. Its local businesses suffered for more than a year and jobs were scarce. Many residents saw their lives turn upside down.
One of them is 58-year-old Sin Konkaew. His salary was reduced by half and his job – cleaning the beach – became irrelevant without tourists. To make ends meet, he started selling food at a small beachfront stall, earning just a few hundred baht per day.
But with the reopening of Phuket, his life could improve soon.
“There will be visitors and people like myself can start to recover a little. The business can gradually improve, from making 700 baht (US$21.84) to 800 baht a day to 1,000 baht to 2,000 baht. That wouldn’t be too bad,” he said.
Tourism authorities are aiming for 11.49 billion baht from 129,000 overseas visitors expected in Phuket in the third quarter of this year. Citing hotel bookings, Bhummikitti told CNA that international tourism demand is “higher than expected”.
“I think there is a lot of potential here,” he said.
More than 500 passengers are expected to fly in on Thursday, according to Thanee Chuangchoo, general manager of the Phuket International Airport.
“In July, 34 flights operated by nine airlines have booked their slots and the number of passengers is above 10,000. Nine more airlines have booked in August and seven others in September. So in total, 31 airlines have made bookings until the end of the summer schedule in October,” he said.
The numbers of passengers are expected to increase gradually as tourists assess the safety and convenience of the quarantine-free travel to the southern island, Thanee added.
“Everyone in Phuket has been waiting for this project for a long time and they have coordinated well. We’ll be a model for other provinces to show that the Phuket Sandbox model can be done successfully.”
EXPERIMENTAL TOURISM MODEL
The Phuket Sandbox tourism model was proposed by Phuket’s private sector following a long period of economic woes caused by COVID-19.
According to foreign ministry spokesperson Tanee Sangrat, Thailand currently welcomes travellers from 66 countries and territories to Phuket under the new tourism model. They include Australia, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, UK, USA and Vietnam, among others.
“To accommodate Phuket Sandbox, the Foreign Affairs Ministry has improved the online application system for COE,” he said in a press briefing on Jun 30. “About 4,100 people have applied so far.”
The experimental tourism initiative has been welcomed by tourism and hospitality businesses. They hope it will help restore Phuket as one of the top international tourist destinations.
“I fully support Phuket Sandbox. It seems to be a well-thought-out reopening plan that allows us to welcome back international travellers in a safe and controlled manner, while minimising the risk to local people and visitors alike,” said Krystal Prakaikaew Na-Ranong, co-founder and owner of Phuket’s luxury boutique resort The Slate.
According to a provincial order by Phuket governor Narong Woonsiew, tourists can travel freely in the province as long as they take some precautions, including social distancing, hand sanitising and wearing face masks.
As for Thais and foreigners who reside in other provinces, they can visit Phuket if they are fully vaccinated or have received the first dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at least 14 days before entering.
If they have not been vaccinated, they must present a negative COVID-19 test result obtained no more than seven days before the visit.
The province also welcomes domestic travellers who are former COVID-19 patients. They must have been treated and recovered from the disease within 90 days and be able to present a medical certificate to prove it. No vaccination is required for this group.
Additional reporting by Saksith Saiyasombut.