The first international travelers touched down Thursday in the holiday hotspot of Phuket under a quarantine-free scheme, as Thailand tries to reboot its battered tourism industry while also enduring its worst coronavirus outbreak.
Tourism makes up almost a fifth of the Thai economy, and the COVID-19 pandemic has led to its worst performance since the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
The kingdom is pinning high hopes for a much-needed revival on the so-called “Phuket sandbox” – a model that will allow vaccinated travelers to visit without quarantine.
On Thursday, 249 passengers on flights from Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Singapore are expected to land on the island – where sandy beaches have been relatively deserted since the virus hit.
The first 25 travelers arrived in Phuket on an Etihad Airways flight before noon and underwent screening procedures.
Among them was Omar Ricalraeesi, 37, from the UAE who said he had previously been to the island 15 times and will spend eight days relaxing.
“After two years of not traveling, I’ve chosen the Phuket sandbox to change my mood,” he told AFP.
Another British tourist said he would stay for a month and was looking forward to a family reunion.
“My children live here so I’m going to see my kids,” he told AFP.
The launch of the quarantine-free scheme comes as Thailand grapples with its worst-ever COVID-19 wave and the worrying detection of the Alpha and Delta coronavirus variants.
Nationwide, the current case tally is at 264,834.
But Phuket remains relatively unscathed as Thai authorities have rolled out a mass vaccination campaign in preparation for the quarantine-free arrivals, with 70 percent of residents receiving at least one dose.
A command center will track foreign visitors’ movements via a mobile app – which tourists are required to install on arrival – and also monitor for potential outbreaks.
Despite the fanfare, tourism operators are lukewarm on the resuscitation of the island’s economy, which has seen nearly 90 percent of hotels shutter.
“I think the restrictions make people travel less,” said Kongsak Khoopongsakorn, president of the Thai Hotels Association Southern Chapter, who also runs a resort on the island.
Besides being fully vaccinated, tourists must remain in Phuket for a fortnight if they wish to travel to the rest of Thailand, and take three coronavirus tests during this period – a substantial expenditure for a family.
Kongsak added that authorities had downgraded its sandbox entry forecast of 129,000 visitors in the third quarter to 100,000.