Thailand reopens to fully vaccinated international tourists with ‘Phuket Sandbox’ program

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Phuket, Thailand’s most popular island destination, welcomed international visitors for the first time in 15 months as the country cautiously reopens to some fully vaccinated travelers.

A flight carrying 25 passengers from Abu Dhabi (AUH) arrived at Phuket International Airport (HKT) Friday morning around 11a.m. local time, greeted by a “water tunnel” to mark the occasion, which was significant. They are the first international tourists allowed on the island since the pandemic began. According to CNN, Thailand officials expect about 100,000 international tourists to arrive in Phuket during the first three months of reopening.

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The Thai government is pinning its hopes of rejuvenating its all-important travel industry on the “Phuket Sandbox” initiative, a model that allows vaccinated international travelers to visit the country without having to quarantine. Fully vaccinated visitors will be allowed into Phuket from a list of 67 countries including the United States and the United Kingdom, and able to skip the government-mandated 14-day isolation period, as long as they submit to a COVID-19 test before flying and two more tests, after arrival.

All international visitors must also download a location-tracking app and will be unable to travel to the Thai mainland for 14 days.

TPG is working on sending a reporter to Thailand to test the reopening. We’ll share details when we know more.

Related: Thailand says it will reopen to travelers in October — here’s what you need to know

Video: Vaccinated Tourists May Be Able to Travel to Thailand by October (Travel + Leisure)

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For more than a year, Phuket has seen nearly all of its resorts and beach-side businesses closed due to the lack of travelers. To give you a comparison of how big an impact the pandemic has had, more than 10 million people visited the island of Phuket in 2019, a record high.

There are some concerns reopening the island could lead to a rise in infections, something that Thailand Minister of Tourism Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn admits is possible. But in an interview with CNN, he said Phuket is doing much better in battling COVID than other areas of Thailand.

“If you look at the nationwide infection number, we would say we are not ready. If you focus only on Phuket, where we have laid our groundwork for more than three months, I would say that Phuket is 100% ready,” he said.

You can find a full list of requirements on the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s official website.

The reopening plan was dependent on getting 70% of the island’s residents vaccinated. More than 80% of the island’s population have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and about 65% were fully vaccinated as of June 30, according to Phuket public relations officials.

“The key message will be herd immunity and no quarantines,” Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, president of the Phuket Tourism Association, told the Financial Times. “The aim is to try and set a new balance between disease control and getting the economy moving.”

Officials hope the “Phuket Sandbox” will provide a successful blueprint to reopen Thailand’s other popular tourist hot spots on October 1, the target date set by Thailand officials. Those destinations include Bangkok, Chonburi, Chiang Mai, Petchaburi, Prachuap Kiri Khan, Phang Nga, Krabi, Surat Thani and Buriram.

However, Bangkok and five other Thai provinces are under coronavirus restrictions for 30 days that went into effect June 28 after a surge in COVID cases. On Thursday, Thailand reported 57 COVID-related daily deaths and 5,533 new cases, mostly in Bangkok.

Featured image by: Suttipong Sutiratanachai/Getty Images

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