Thailand greenlights quarantine-free travel model for Phuket

BANGKOK (CNA) – Thai authorities yesterday greenlighted a pilot model for quarantine-free travel to ultra-popular beach destination Phuket, a first step towards the tourist-hungry kingdom’s goal of resuscitating its pandemic-battered economy.

Thailand imposed strict restrictions on visitor arrivals to stem COVID-19 infections, but discouraging visitors has led to its economy recording its worst performance since the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

The hugely important tourism industry has been on tenterhooks since March, when the government floated the so-called ‘Phuket Sandbox’ scheme, which would have allowed vaccinated tourists to enter the country without undergoing the usual two weeks of quarantine.

But after a third wave of COVID-19 infections engulfed the country in April, the scheme appeared to be on the back burner, thanks to muddy messaging from authorities.

Tourism officials and members of Thailand’s COVID-19 task force announced on Friday that the sandbox scheme was set to begin on July 1.

Yesterday – eight days before its launch – government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said the Cabinet of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha had officially given the scheme
its blessing.

Thailand imposed strict restrictions on visitor arrivals to stem COVID-19 infections, but discouraging visitors has hit its tourism-dependent economy hard. PHOTO: AFP

If the sandbox scheme goes smoothly, authorities plan to replicate it in destinations like Krabi and Koh Samui.

But tricky caveats to ensure the sandbox goes ahead without any disruptions include keeping infection rates low – in Phuket the number of weekly COVID-19 cases cannot exceed 90.

“As of today, the number of (infection cases) in Phuket can still ensure that the Phuket sandbox scheme will go on,” said COVID-19 task force spokesman Taweesin Visanuyothin yesterday.

Thailand’s tentpole tourism industry previously made up almost 20 per cent of its national income. Its losses have reverberated through other sectors including restaurants, transportation and the service industry.

Prime Minister Prayut has come under vociferous criticism for his handling of the pandemic – from the start-stop process in instating restrictions and the lack of state support for impacted sectors to the procurement of vaccines.

The prime minister announced last week that he plans for Thailand to fully re-open to foreign visitors by October – a vow that would require his administration to hit the target of innoculating 50 million Thais in four months, he said.