Along Phuket’s Patong beach, once a byword for louche and loud foreign tourists, restaurants and bars are shuttered and the inviting blue waters are empty, apart from a few Thai bathers.
Covid-19 has stripped Thailand’s largest tourist island, which welcomed a record 10m foreign visitors in 2019, of travellers, turning teeming resorts into hulking ghost ships.
But from Thursday, the island will begin accepting foreign tourists for the first time in more than a year, under a pilot scheme called “Phuket Sandbox”.
Fully vaccinated visitors will be allowed into Phuket without having to endure a two-week quarantine, provided they submit to a Covid-19 test before flying and two after arrival. They also have to download a location-tracking app and refrain from travelling to the Thai mainland for 14 days.
While the rest of Thailand struggles with vaccination delays, Phuket has been given priority access to jabs. Officials said they expected more than 70 per cent of Phuket’s population of about 500,000 to be fully vaccinated by the start of the sandbox programme.
“The key message will be herd immunity and no quarantines,” said Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, president of the Phuket Tourism Association. “The aim is to try and set a new balance between disease control and getting the economy moving.”
The Sandbox scheme, if it works, will serve as a prelude to the reopening of other Thai islands and beaches to foreign visitors, and a full opening of the kingdom, by October. Tourism generates about one-fifth of Thailand’s gross domestic product.
The experiment is being watched closely by tourism officials in Asian countries that sealed their borders to foreign tourists during the pandemic, from Indonesia’s Bali to Vietnam’s Phu Quoc.
“This is a historic moment for Asia,” said Ho Kwon Ping, chief executive of Banyan Tree Group. “The idea of opening up borders without quarantine is not novel in Europe”, he pointed out, but it remains rare in Asia, where stringent travel curbs remain the norm.
Thailand’s embrace of Sandbox marked a significant change of tack in its management of the pandemic. In the first year of the outbreak, it sealed its borders to most visitors and tried to bring local infections down to zero.
This approach appeared to be working in the second half of 2020 as restaurants, nightspots and resorts resumed normal business, albeit only for Thais and foreign residents.
Since April, however, the virus has surged, even as Prayuth Chan-ocha’s government has come under intensifying pressure from business to reopen.
“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 intentions,” the Thai prime minister said in a recent speech in which he vowed to reopen the country’s borders within 120 days.
Hospitality groups said the Sandbox plan was a blueprint for managing health risks related to reopening while boosting local incomes and accepting Covid-19 as a fact of life. “If we don’t open soon, forget about Covid — we are dead of starvation,” says Frederic Varnier, managing director of Anantara Hotels in Phuket.
Officials believe that Phuket lends itself especially well to Sandbox because it can only be reached by bridge, boat or plane. Emirates and other Middle Eastern airlines are resuming flights and Thai Airways, the national airline now in administration, is planning flights from five European cities.
“There is pent-up demand from people who want to travel,” said Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, deputy director for Asia Pacific with the Tourism Authority of Thailand. “Being an island, it’s easier to control, observe and contain outbreaks if there are any.”
However, Eurasia Group, the risk consultancy, predicted the scheme would have “little initial impact”. They said arrivals would pick up this year but would reach “only a small fraction of pre-pandemic levels”.
Tourism officials forecast that just 100,000 foreigners would visit Phuket in the third quarter, with arrivals slowly picking up by the end of this year. British tourists, for example, can travel to Spain, Greece or other, nearer beach destinations without having to quarantine on arrival.
The launch of Sandbox also coincides with Thailand’s monsoon season, traditionally a quiet period for Phuket. Serving alcohol in public is banned under Thailand’s Covid restrictions, meaning guests will need to drink in their rooms.
Businesspeople in Thailand described the restrictions as onerous, including mandatory Certificate of Entry paperwork secured at a Thai embassy.
“If they really want to see the numbers go up, they’ve got to get rid of the CoE,” said William Heinecke, chief executive of Minor International, which owns the Anantara brand.
Infections have risen recently to 4,000-5,000 cases a day, stoking anger against the Prayuth government that could erupt in a public backlash if outbreaks are traced to tourists in Phuket.
Hotel owners are already tempering their expectations.
“I don’t expect much to happen because of the [rainy] season,” said Krystal Prakaikaew Na-Ranong, co-founder and owner of The Slate, a Phuket hotel. However, she added: “It’s a good start to prepare ourselves for the fourth quarter and the high season.”