Dreaming of golden beaches and the caress of tropical breezes? Then consider a holiday on the island of Phuket.
That’s the pitch being made by the government of Thailand, which has seen its tourism-dependent economy battered by the pandemic. On Tuesday, the Thai cabinet approved a plan, called Phuket Sandbox, that will allow vaccinated international visitors to roam the island without having to quarantine for 14 days, as is the current policy for arrivals in Thailand.
“I’m very excited that it’s finally happening,” said Nanthasiri Ronnasiri, the head of the Phuket branch of the Thai tourism authority. “Business here has been devastated. With this reopening, at least the people are being given the chance to welcome tourists again.”
But Phuket Sandbox — which is scheduled to start on July 1 with five flights from Singapore, Qatar, Israel and the United Arab Emirates — may not deliver the economic boost that its supporters were hoping for. And the late date of formal approval, with many international travelers having already made summer plans, makes it unlikely that crowds of sun seekers will be descending on the island anytime soon.
The plan allows for tourists fully inoculated with World Health Organization-approved vaccines to spend 14 days on Phuket without having to be confined to a hotel room. After two weeks and multiple Covid-19 tests, the tourists, who must be from countries considered at low or medium risk for the coronavirus, will be allowed to travel to the rest of Thailand.
While in Phuket, they will be able to swim and snorkel, drink beer and enjoy an invigorating Thai massage, all with hardly any restrictions. (Masks are still mandatory in public, however.)
Health officials have warned that Phuket Sandbox could be suspended if coronavirus infections on the island rise beyond 90 cases per week. Thailand is currently suffering from its worst outbreak since the pandemic began, and a mass vaccine rollout is far behind schedule. Only about 3 percent of the country’s 70 million people have been fully vaccinated, despite government promises to administer 100 million doses by the end of the year.
To prepare for Phuket’s reopening, the Thai government began funneling vaccines to the island this year. Even so, less than 45 percent of people in Phuket have been fully vaccinated, according to health officials. And many were inoculated with the Sinovac vaccine, which may not be as effective against variants as other shots.
Some Thai doctors argue that the country shouldn’t open up so quickly, even for a pilot project on a sequestered island.
“There is still a risk when you welcome them without quarantining that they carry the virus into the country, especially when it is the variant of concern,” said Thira Woratanarat, a public health expert at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “There will be a chance that it will spread in the community.”
Cases of the Beta variant that was first identified in South Africa have appeared at and around a religious school in southern Thailand. The Delta variant, first discovered in India, has appeared in construction worker camps in Bangkok.
But for Thailand’s tourism sector, Phuket Sandbox cannot come quickly enough. Ms. Nanthasiri of the Thai Tourism Authority said that a survey conducted among drivers, guides, boat staff, cleaners, hotel workers and others in the vacation industry there showed overwhelming support for opening up Phuket to vaccinated tourists.
“For now, they are more afraid of having nothing to eat than of contracting Covid,” she said. “Starving is scarier.”