PHUKET, Thailand (AP) – Thailand on Thursday embarked on an ambitious but risky plan that it hopes will revitalize a pandemic-ravaged tourism industry and open the popular holiday island of Phuket to fully vaccinated foreigners from lower risk countries to open.
When the first flight arrived, airport fire engines blew up their water cannons to form an arch over the Etihad jet from Abu Dhabi taxiing to its gate.
Leaving the airport, Frenchman Bruno Souillard said he had dreamed of returning to Thailand for a year and seized the opportunity.
“I am very, very happy,” said the 60-year-old tourist.
The Phuket Sandbox program comes as coronavirus infections rise in Thailand, including a significant number of Delta variant cases, and many have wondered if it is too early to win tourists back, and if they are in any significant numbers will come because of the restrictions they continue to face.
But the number of new cases on the island itself is extremely low, in the single digits every day, and more than 70% of the population are fully vaccinated. The government is betting that travelers will be willing to settle for the option of a beach vacation with coronavirus-related regulations after months of being cooped up in their home countries.
Before the pandemic, the tourism sector made up about 20% of the Thai economy and 95% of Phuket’s income.
The holiday island off the south coast recorded fewer than half a million visitors and almost no foreigners in the first five months, compared with more than 3 million in the same period last year, including around 2 million foreigners.
Alluding to the importance of the “sandbox” plan, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha flew to Phuket to attend the launch in person.
He stressed that the sandbox is only the first step towards his goal announced in June of fully reopening Thailand within 120 days.
“This reopening applies not just to Phuket, but to the whole country,” he said.
Last minute issues in some program details and warnings from authorities that if cases increase on the island, further restrictions may be needed – or they may need to be closed completely – meant some cancellations before they even started. Fewer than 250 international travelers were expected on the first day, compared to the original destination of 1,500.
But while the kinks are worked out and people are reporting their firsthand experience, authorities are hoping for the numbers to steadily increase. From July 1st to 15th there are currently 1,101 hotel bookings for a total of 13,116 room nights.
Travelers to other parts of Thailand are subject to a strict 14-day quarantine in hotel rooms, but the sandpit plan allows visitors to Phuket to roam the entire island – the largest in the country – where they can relax on the white beaches, ski and dine at restaurants in the evening but clubs and bars will remain closed.
Only visitors from countries rated as no higher than “low” or “medium” risk – a list currently includes most of Europe and the Middle East, the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand – are allowed and must fly direct Phuket, although plans are in the works to allow carefully controlled transfers through Bangkok Airport.
After the first flight from Abu Dhabi, passengers from Qatar, Israel and Singapore are expected on Thursday.
Adult foreign visitors must, among other things, prove two vaccinations, a negative COVID-19 test no later than 72 hours before departure and insurance that covers treatment against the virus for at least 100,000 US dollars. On the island, they must comply with masking and distancing regulations and run three COVID-19 tests at their own expense – about $ 300 total – and show negative results.
After 14 days, visitors can travel elsewhere in Thailand.
Bangkok uprising reported. Associate Press Secretary Chalida Ekvittayavechnukul in Bangkok contributed to this report.
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