Along Phuket’s Patong Beach, it was once synonymous with the noise of foreign tourists. Restaurants and bars were closed. The charming blue water was empty and there were only a few Thai swimmers.

Covid-19 deprived Thailand’s largest tourist island of the number of tourists, which received a record 10 million foreign tourists in 2019, turning crowded resorts into huge ghost ships.

But starting from Thursday, under a pilot program called the “Phuket Sandbox”, the island will begin accepting foreign tourists for the first time in more than a year.

Fully vaccinated tourists will be allowed to enter Phuket without a two-week quarantine, provided that they are tested for Covid-19 twice before the flight and after arrival. They must also download a location tracking app and avoid traveling to mainland Thailand for 14 days.

When the rest of Thailand Delay in vaccination, Phuket has been given priority to use jabs. Officials said they expect that more than 70% of Phuket’s approximately 500,000 population will be fully vaccinated by the start of the sandbox program.

Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, chairman of the Phuket Tourism Association, said: “The key message will be herd immunity and no isolation.” “The goal is to try to establish a new balance between disease control and economic promotion.”

If the sandbox plan is successful, it will be the prelude to the reopening of other islands and beaches in Thailand to foreign tourists, and Thailand will be fully opened by October.tourism About one-fifth of Thailand’ss Gross domestic product.

Phuket welcomed a record 10 million foreign tourists in 2019 © Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg

An abandoned Bangla road in Patong, Phuket

An abandoned Bangla road in Patong, Phuket. Its bars and restaurants are usually crowded with tourists © Taylor Weidman/Bloomberg

Tourism officials in Asian countries are paying close attention to this experiment. These countries have closed their borders to foreign tourists during the pandemic. Bali, Indonesia Go to Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam.

“This is a historic moment in Asia,” said He Quanping, CEO of Banyan Tree Group. He pointed out that “the idea of ​​opening borders without isolation is not new in Europe”, but it is still rare in Asia, and strict travel restrictions are still the norm.

Thailand’s acceptance of the sandbox marks an important Change strategy In its management of epidemics. In the first year of the outbreak, it closed the border to most tourists and tried to reduce the local infection rate to zero.

This approach seems to work in the second half of 2020, as restaurants, nightclubs and resorts Resume normal business, Although only for Thais and foreign residents.

However, since April, although the Prayuth Chan-ocha government has collapsed, the virus has surged Aggravate stress From opening to reopening.

The Thai prime minister said in a recent speech: “I know this decision is risky because when we open up the country, no matter how good our intentions, the number of infections will increase,” he vowed to reopen the country’s borders. Within 120 days.

Thailand's tourism industry reopened

The hotel group stated that the sandbox plan is to manage the health risks associated with the reopening, while increasing local income and accepting Covid-19 as a realistic blueprint. Frederic Varnier, managing director of Anantara Phuket, said: “If we don’t open soon, then forget about Covid-we are starving to death.”

Officials believe that Phuket is particularly suitable for sandboxes because it can only be reached by bridges, boats or planes.Emirates and other Middle Eastern airlines are resuming flights, and Thai National Airline is resuming flights Now in administration, Is planning flights from five European cities.

Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, deputy director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand in Asia and the Pacific, said: “The needs of people who want to travel are suppressed.” “As an island, if there is an outbreak, It’s easier to control, observe and control.”

However, the risk consulting firm Eurasia Group predicts that the plan will “have little initial impact.” They stated that the number of arrivals this year will increase, but “will only reach a small percentage of pre-pandemic levels.”

Tourism officials predict that only 100,000 foreigners will visit Phuket in the third quarter, and the number of arrivals will slowly increase by the end of this year.For example, British tourists can Travel to Spain, Greece or other closer beach destinations, there is no need to quarantine upon arrival.

The launch of Sandbox coincides with the monsoon season in Thailand, where Phuket is traditionally a quiet period. According to Thailand’s Covid restrictions, it is forbidden to provide alcohol in public places, which means that guests need to drink in their own rooms.

Thai businessmen say these restrictions are onerous, including mandatory entry documents obtained at the Thai embassy.

“If they really want to see the numbers go up, they have to get rid of CoE,” said William Heinecke, CEO of Minor International, which owns the Anantara brand.

The number of infections has recently risen to 4,000-5,000 cases per day, which has aroused anger against the Prayut government. If the epidemic is traced back to tourists in Phuket, it may arouse strong public opposition.

Hotel owners are already lowering their expectations.

“I don’t expect too much to happen because [rainy] Season,” said Krystal Prakaikaew Na-Ranong, co-founder and owner of The Slate, Phuket Hotel. However, she added: “This is a good start to prepare for the fourth quarter and peak season. “



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