Phuket has always been Thailand’s tourist playground for sea and sand , so it seems apt that its grand reopening plan has been dubbed Phuket Sandbox. If you haven’t already heard, Phuket Sandbox refers to the island’s pilot scheme for reopening its borders to vaccinated international tourists – sans quarantine.
Freshly kicked off on July 1, this protocol-packed plan has been hailed as a promising alternative to travel bubbles in Asia (the latter having proved rather prone to popping so far).
So is it time to pack your swimsuit once you get your second shot? Well, not quite. For one, there’s a laundry list of entry requirements to wade through.
For another, there’re a couple of game-changing caveats to note in the event of a Covid-19 case – and yes, Phuket has already seen a handful since reopening. If you’re itching to play in the sandbox, here’s our breakdown of everything you need to know about Phuket’s reopening.
Which countries qualify?
Currently, 68 countries and territories have made the cut for the Thai government’s approved list – Singapore among them. Airlines now offering direct flights to Phuket include Singapore Airlines, as well as Cathay Pacific, Qatar Airways, Emirates, and Etihad Airways.
In the first week of Phuket Sandbox, a total of 2,113 international visitors have already touched down. And based on booking data, Thailand is expecting over 11,800 travellers to hit the island’s shores by end July.
Requirements for entry
As you might expect, there’s a hefty checklist of requirements to tick off before visitors can step foot onshore. Here’s what you’ll need:
Proof of vaccination: A certificate of vaccination involving a World Health Organization-approved Covid-19 vaccine, no less than 14 days before arrival. Unvaccinated tourists must undergo a 14-day quarantine.
Certification of entry: An entry permit issued by the Thai Embassy that must be applied for in advance online.
Negative RT-PCR test: A proof of negative result from the Covid-19 RT PCR test, taken within 72 hours of departure.
Medical insurance: An insurance policy covering healthcare expenses during your stay, with a minimum of USD100,000 (S$136,000) in coverage. All medical treatment for Covid-19 will be at the traveller’s own expense.
Proof of accommodation: Confirmation of booking from hotels certified SHA+ by the Thai government. Travellers must stay at approved hotels for at least 14 days before choosing to transfer to private or non-SHA+ accommodation.
Departure tickets: Travellers are required to stay in Phuket for at least 14 days if they plan to visit other parts of Thailand. Those staying less than 14 days must instead present confirmed flight bookings for departing Thailand.
During your stay
Upon arrival, you’ll need to take a Covid-19 RT PCR tests – once you’ve secured your negative test results, you’re free to head out and snag your slice of paradise.
On day six or seven, you’re required to undergo RT PCR testing again, and once more on day 12 or 13. All testing costs must be prepaid by travellers, with each test priced to the grand tune of THB 2,500 to THB 4,000 (around S$104 to S$166).
Travellers are also required to download the app ThailandPlus on their phones for contact tracing throughout the stay. And of course, masks are a must in public areas, including the beach.
What’s open in Phuket?
If you’re gearing up for boozy revelry, here’s the bad news: the island’s bars, clubs, karaoke venues, and other entertainment spots remain closed. Dining in at restaurants is allowed, however, and you can purchase and consume alcohol until 11pm.
For those craving a spot of pampering, spas and salons are now open as well. It’s business as usual for malls, theatres, and water parks, though amusement parks must close by 8pm. And of course, Phuket’s famed beaches are serving up a postcard-perfect dose of sea and Vitamin D, though you might find the atmosphere less lively than usual.
What happens if Covid-19 strikes?
The sandbox scheme only kicked off after more than 70 per cent of people living on Phuket were vaccinated, according to statements by local officials. This puts it far ahead of Thailand’s nationwide vaccination rate, which currently hovers at only 4 per cent.
It all sounds pretty good on paper, though the repercussions of reopening are harder to predict. Thus far, six Covid-19 cases among tourists have already been detected. On July 7, a man from the United Arab Emirates was the first overseas visitor to test positive upon arrival.
On July 11, two unvaccinated Myanmar children tested positive for Covid-19, arriving in a family group of seven. The next day, three more cases were reported – a Myanmar national travelling with the family of seven, an African who arrived with two friends, and a Swiss teen who came with family.
All told, the rate of initial cases remains relatively low, given that Phuket welcomed 3,917 visitors in its first ten days of reopening. This might be cold comfort for those facing quarantine, however. Those travelling with detected Covid-19 cases, as well as other passengers deemed high-risk contacts, have to undergo a 14-day quarantine at an ‘alternative local quarantine’ (ALQ) hotel – at your own expense, of course.
On a more ominous note, Phuket also reported its first local case of the more contagious Delta variant this week, allegedly contracted from a Bangkok traveller. While the island’s local cases has remained in the single digits thus far, authorities have laid out plans to shut down the sandbox should the weekly number of infections surpass 90.
Thailand’s Minister of Tourism has said that, if successful, the sandbox scheme might be rolled out in other popular destinations come October – Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Phang Nga among them.
This is looking increasingly in doubt, with a third coronavirus wave now sweeping over the rest of the country. Daily case counts across Thailand have exceeded 9,000 this month; Bangkok, along with nine nearby provinces, has gone into another lockdown since July 9.
This article was first published in City Nomads.