A vaccination push on the island has persuaded desperate authorities to trial a scheme which will see 200 visitors return to its beaches – as Covid runs rampant elsewhere in the country
The first international travellers landed in the holiday hotspot of Phuket on Thursday as Thailand desperately tries to reboot its battered tourism industry.
Despite enduring its worst coronavirus outbreak, under a quarantine-free scheme, about 200 passengers on flights from Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Singapore were expected to land on the island, where the beaches have been almost deserted since the virus hit.
The kingdom is pinning hopes for a much-needed revival on the so-called “Phuket sandbox” – a model that will allow vaccinated travellers to visit without quarantine.
Tourism makes up almost a fifth of the Thai economy, and the Covid-19 pandemic has led to its worst performance since the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
The launch of the quarantine-free scheme comes as Thailand grapples with its worst-ever Covid-19 wave and the worrying detection of the Alpha and Delta coronavirus variants.
Nationwide, the current case tally is at more than 260,000. But Phuket remains relatively unscathed as Thai authorities have rolled out a mass vaccination campaign in preparation for the quarantine-free arrivals, with 70% of the island’s residents receiving at least one dose.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha travelled to Phuket for the launch and said the pilot scheme would provide the basis for reopening the entire country in October.
“Phuket citizens should be proud as they are fulfilling their duty for the entire nation,” he told reporters at the Royal Phuket City Hotel.
Besides being fully vaccinated, tourists must remain in Phuket for a fortnight if they wish to travel to the rest of Thailand, and take three coronavirus tests during this period.
A command centre will track foreign visitors’ movements via a mobile app, which tourists are required to install on arrival, and also monitor for potential outbreaks.
Despite the fanfare, tourism operators are lukewarm on the resuscitation of the economy on the island, where nearly 90% of hotels have been shut.
Another regional tourist hotspot, Bali, had been eyeing a July reopening but Indonesian authorities appeared to have backed down as virus cases surged to record levels.
- Reporting by AFP