The Party Island of Phuket Opens to Those Willing to Follow Its Many Rules

Pakin Songmor | Moment | Getty Images

Starting July 1, tourists can visit Phuket without quarantining for the first time since March 2020.

In Thailand's much-discussed "sandbox" pilot scheme, its largest island has reopened to vaccinated travelers who are willing to abide by a laundry list of rules designed to safely restart tourism amid the pandemic.     

The plan hinges on a concerted vaccination drive to immunize 70% of Phuket's population, a goal which local authorities said they met earlier this month with 74% of residents having been vaccinated.

Local media have questioned this figure, which stands in stark contrast to Thailand's nationwide vaccination rate of around 4%. But confirmed Covid cases have dramatically fallen in Phuket. The island recorded single-digit daily cases this week, while Thailand as a whole reported its third-highest daily case total — 5,406 infections — on June 27.

The "sandbox" plan turns Phuket into a testing ground for protocols that, if successful, will likely be introduced to other parts of Thailand — and potentially other destinations in Southeast Asia — this year.    

A test of tourists' appetite for rules

But Phuket, like most of Southeast Asia, isn't making it easy for tourists to enter.

According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), to avoid quarantining in Phuket, visitors must show:

  • A vaccination certificate with a vaccine approved by the World Health Organization, or Thai health authorities, administered no fewer than 14 days before arriving; accompanying children are allowed
  • A negative RT-PCR test (taken within 72 hours of departure)
  • A medical insurance policy of no less than $100,000 that covers the stay
  • An approval called a Certificate of Entry to enter
  • Proof of payment for a 14-night stay and necessary Covid tests, or if staying less than two weeks, travelers must also show confirmed departure flights out of Thailand
  • Proof that travelers spent the preceding 21 days in a low-risk or medium-risk country outlined on a list that is mostly in Thai on the website of Thailand's Department of Disease Control

A selection of countries and territories on Thailand's list

Australia, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, China, Croatia, 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 complete

Upon arrival, travelers must undergo a health screening and download a monitoring application called ThailandPlus. They must also take and pay for a Covid-19 test and await results at their hotel. Additional tests are required on travel day 6 or 7, and for those staying longer, again on day 12 or 13.

Those who test negative can freely travel around Phuket, and after 14 days, to other parts of Thailand, provided they practice social distancing, submit to 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.

Pakin Songmor | Moment | Getty Images
Authorities recommend, but do not require, tourists to use "SHA+" restaurants and taxis in Phuket.

Tourists must prepay and stay in hotels or homestays that have been certified as "SHA+" which denotes that they've met Safety and Health Administration measures and vaccinated more than 70% of employees.

Anyone who is tested positive "will be referred to specified health-care facilities for medical treatment at their own expense," according to TAT's website.  

In happier times, more visitors than Rome

With nearly 11 million arrivals, Phuket was the 15th most visited city in the world in 2019, according to a report by consulting firm Euromonitor International entitled "Top 100 City Destinations."

Sandwiched between Mumbai (No. 14) and Rome (No. 16), the island and its estimated 420,000 inhabitants punched above their weight on the list, which counts international travelers, but not domestic visitors, day-trippers and cruise passengers.

Despite the island's popularity, Phuket's reopening is expected to be muted. Covid outbreaks in Thailand in the spring, combined with meandering timelines, rule changes and a late-stage governmental approval for the "sandbox" scheme last week, may have deterred summer tourists who, by now, have likely made other plans.

Among nations where summer travel is returning, there's a preference for domestic travel and lingering aversion to flying, especially on the types of long-haul flights that are required to reach Thailand from the United States or Europe.

Thailand's neighbors likely won't be packing their bags either. Tourism hasn't restarted in earnest anywhere in Southeast Asia, where strict quarantines and sluggish vaccination campaigns have all but ended summer tourism prospects.

Unvaccinated tourists can visit Phuket, though they must quarantine for 14 nights in designated hotels.
Pone Pluck | Moment | Getty Images
Unvaccinated tourists can visit Phuket, though they must quarantine for 14 nights in designated hotels.

That's not good news for Thailand, since nearly 72% of its overnight visitors in 2019 hailed from Asia, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. Nearly a quarter of all tourists to Thailand are from China, which is not allowing residents to freely travel for leisure tourism yet.

Some 1,500 people are expected to arrive in Phuket, according to the Bangkok Post, which would be a far cry from the daily average of 25,000 tourists it was receiving before the pandemic.

But it's a start, and one that Thai officials hope to replicate in other locations soon.

What's opening next?

With its sugary beaches and raucous nightlife, Phuket isn't the only "sandbox" Thailand has in the works.

The islands of Koh Samui, Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Tao have been approved to reopen to vaccinated travelers on July 15 under a similar scheme. The cultural enclave of Chiang Mai, a city in the north of the country, may soon follow.  

Should Thailand's sandbox scheme prove successful, other countries may implement similar measures, said Jade Chandhakant, the regional director of booking website for Thailand and Vietnam.

"The whole travel industry will be anticipating Phuket's reopening," he said. "We hope that Phuket's reopening will mark the start of more 'sandboxes' to come, and this will be a safe way to resume leisure tourism in Southeast Asia."

As for Thailand, the country may be pushing toward reopening no matter the outcome. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha on June 16 indicated in a speech that he is setting a goal to open all of Thailand by mid-October.

He said Thailand "cannot wait for a time when everyone is fully vaccinated with two shots to open the country or for when the world is free of the virus."

"I know this decision comes with some risk because when we open the country there will be an increase in infections, no matter how good our precautions," he said. "The time has now come for us to take that calculated risk."

Copyright CNBC
Contact Us