| 22 February 2024, Thursday |

Thai tourism set for sluggish reboot as Phuket stutters on ‘sandbox’

The anticipated reopening of Thailand’s tourist island of Phuket to vaccinated guests next month, skipping quarantine rules, has gotten a tepid reception, with hotel bookings indicating predicted occupancy of fewer than 20% so far.

From July 1, the “Phuket Sandbox” project will allow travelers who have been properly vaccinated against COVID-19 to freely move around the island, with no self-isolation required upon arrival. After 14 days, they will be allowed permission to travel across Thailand.

However, there are a few thorny restrictions, and many industry insiders have expressed concern that the ambiguity and constant regulatory revisions are discouraging bookings. The proposal isn’t expected to be completed until later this month.

“This will be a lengthy procedure. We don’t expect a 100 percent occupancy rate on this trip “The Phuket Hotels Association’s president, Anthony Lark, stated on July 2nd.

Thai Airways is on board, with direct flights from six European cities to Phuket beginning in July, albeit the airline expects only a small number of passengers, with perhaps 100 in the first week, according to one of the carrier’s representatives.

For an economy reliant on tourism for jobs and consumption, the new arrivals won’t bring immediate relief, although removal of the costly, two-week quarantine requirements that deterred tourists for more than a year offers some hope.

“We’re seeing strong interest, particularly from the Middle East, UK, Europe and Scandinavia already, to return to Phuket gradually,” Lark said.

Last year, Thailand lost $50 billion in tourism earnings as foreign arrivals fell by 83 percent to 6.7 million, down from a high of 39.9 million in 2019. Global travel restrictions and Thailand’s strict entry criteria were blamed for the drop. Job losses and business closures were particularly severe in Phuket.

The government hopes that the Phuket Sandbox would attract 129,000 visitors in the third quarter, a far cry from Thailand’s average monthly arrivals of 3.3 million in 2019. Phuket attracts almost a quarter of all visitors to Thailand.

In the first four months of this year, Thailand received only 28,701 tourists.


The sandbox campaign, according to one Phuket hotel owner, is “a lot of nonsense” that won’t make a difference, in part because much of the target demographic – middle- and upper-class Asians – must quarantine upon their return home.

“China accounts for more than half of Phuket tourism,” claimed the hotelier, who did not want to be identified.

“It will be difficult without that market.”

The island’s hotel association forecasts a steady improvement in occupancy to 30 percent -40 percent by year’s end, up from 10 percent -20 percent from July to October, including local bookings.

Several major airlines are backing the plan and offering direct flights, including Emirates, El Al, Air France, Qatar Airways, British Airways and Cathay Pacific, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).

Singapore Airlines told Reuters its Phuket flights will increase from two per week to seven from July, after receiving interest from customers.

Outbound travel restrictions in several key markets, such as China, Japan, and Malaysia, remain in place, while Thai health authorities have prohibited tourists from other high-risk countries, such as India.

Critics also complain about onerous requirements such as mandatory swab testing, $100,000 in insurance coverage for COVID-19 treatment, and the usage of a tracking app.

Phuket, for its part, has been rushing to vaccinate 70% of its population – a criterion for reopening – with 60% having taken a first shot so far, a rate significantly higher than Bangkok, the epicenter of Thailand’s deadliest outbreak to far.

Since May, when Phuket implemented negative test requirements for domestic arrivals, the number of cases has been in the single digits on most days. In Bangkok, on the other hand, hundreds of new cases were reported every day last month.

Thailand’s Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, announced on Thursday that the country would reopen to visitors in 120 days, calling it a calculated but necessary risk.

Authorities want to replicate the Sandbox initiative other places such as Krabi and Koh Samui if it works well.

“It’s a whole different circumstance. You’re attempting to reopen the country to tourism in order to boost the economy, but you must exercise caution at the same time “TAT deputy governor Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya said.

  • Reuters