Phuket reopens to tourists one year after Covid forced Thai borders to close

Scheme aimed at preventing spread of virus requires tourists to stay on island for 14 days if they wish to travel elsewhere in Thailand

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Last modified on Thu 1 Jul 2021 03.42 EDT

The Thai island of Phuket has reopened to some foreign tourists, more than one year after the pandemic forced the country’s borders to close, devastating the economy.

About 400 international tourists were expected to arrive in Phuket on Thursday, through a scheme that officials hope could help to revive the country’s tourism sector.

The programme, known as Phuket Sandbox, aims to minimise the risk of transmission by requiring tourists to stay on the island for 14 days if they wish to travel elsewhere in Thailand.

Phuket residents have been prioritised for vaccination before the reopening, and at least 70% of the population have received one dose of either Sinovac or AstraZeneca – far more than the rest of the country, which is struggling with its most severe outbreak yet.

The scheme has been hampered by last-minute rules changes, with the final regulations approved days ago. Only fully vaccinated tourists from countries deemed to be low- and medium-risk will be allowed to travel to Phuket, and they will need to provide a negative Covid test as well as other documentation.

Travellers will be required to comply with various disease measures on arrival, including wearing a mask at all times when outdoors. They will also need to stay at special, certified hotels where 70% of staff have been vaccinated, and download a tracking app on their phone.

Siripakorn Cheawsamoot, the deputy governor for international marketing at the Tourism Authority of Thailand, said while the number of tourists travelling to Phuket this week was still low, it was hoped the programme could provide a model for safe tourism in Thailand.

Flights are expected on Thursday from Qatar, Israel and Singapore.

“It’s not just about the number of first-day arrivals but it’s about how we get the confidence of tourists, people and government to extend to another area,” he said. It is proposed that the island of Samui could reopen on 15 July.

Almost 40 million foreigners arrived in Thailand in 2019, but visitor numbers fell to just 6.7 million last year as the pandemic brought global travel to a standstill. It’s estimated that Thailand lost about $50bn in tourism revenue.

In Phuket, where the economy is reliant on foreign travellers, the impact was felt by virtually all businesses. Many residents left the island after the pandemic hit and their livelihoods disappeared over night.

Some businesses have reopened before Thursday’s arrivals, though areas such as Patong on Phuket’s west coast, famous for its tourist nightlife, remain unusually quiet.

Rattiya Butjeen, who owns Nature Seafood restaurant in Rawai and a tour company, said she had managed to stay open but there had been very little business over the past year.

“There were days when we had no customers at all,” she said. “Luckily, I have my own land and so I don’t have to pay for the rent. But for other people who have to pay rent to operate, they suffer a lot.”

Next month, her tour company has bookings for just two days. “If it was a normal situation right now we would be fully booked until the 15th,” Rattiya said.

Rattiya said she was glad tourists were gradually returning but the situation was still precarious. “It’s so uncertain. It depends on Covid. If the Covid situation gets better, I think we could be back on track. But I’m not sure,” she said.

In Phuket, daily case numbers remain in the single digits, and officials have said the scheme will be suspended if more than 90 cases are recorded in one week.

Elsewhere, Thailand is struggling to contain a third wave that began in April and has spread from Bangkok’s nightclubs to prisons, factories and construction camps.

In Bangkok and other high-risk areas, restaurants are closed except for takeaway food, and bars and nightclubs are shut. The country reported a record 57 deaths on Thursday and 5,553 cases.

About 10% of the Thai population has received at least one dose, while 4% are fully vaccinated.

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