By Kocha Olarn, CNN
For the first time in over 15 months, Thailand’s popular resort island of Phuket is allowing vaccinated international travelers to enter without quarantine restrictions.
On July 1, at around 11 a.m., 25 vaccinated passengers arrived at Phuket International Airport on a direct flight from Abu Dhabi. It was the first of four flights due to arrive on Thursday, carrying approximately 400 vaccinated tourists from Doha, Tel Aviv, Singapore and Abu Dhabi as part of the new “Phuket Sandbox” program.
In an interview with CNN on the eve of the reopening, Thailand Minister of Tourism Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn said the Phuket Sandbox was necessary to restart the country’s economy, which has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“In 2019, we had revenue from both domestic and international tourism at 3 trillion baht ($93.7 billion) but in 2020 it shrank to 800 billion baht,” he said.
Of that figure, Phuket generated more than 470 billion baht in revenue, thanks to the arrival of 10 million tourists — second only to Bangkok.
The July 1 opening is viewed as largely symbolic, and not expected to lead to a windfall in tourism numbers.
Phiphat estimates about 100,000 international tourists will arrive in Phuket during the first three months of reopening, generating around 9 billion baht in revenue.
Off the island, the country continues to battle its third and worst Covid-19 wave since the start of the pandemic. On Thursday, Thailand reported a record-high 57 Covid-19 deaths and 5,533 new cases, mostly in Bangkok.
The total death toll stands at 2,080 since the start of the pandemic.
However, Phiphat says “Phuket is currently perfectly fit for travel” despite the rise in overall coronavirus cases in Thailand.
“If you look at the nationwide infection number, we would say we are not ready. If you focus only on Phuket, where we have laid our groundwork for more than three months, I would say that Phuket is 100% ready,” he said.
The reopening plan was reliant on efforts to vaccinate 70% of the island’s residents. More than 80% of the island’s population have been vaccinated with at least one dose, and about 65% were fully vaccinated as of June 30, according to Phuket’s public relations office.
Domestic travelers entering Phuket must have received at least one dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine or two doses of other brands, or have recovered from Covid-19 within 90 days.
Otherwise, they need to show proof of a negative Covid-19 test conducted within seven days prior to their arrival.
These steps were taken to prevent infections from spreading to the island, with officials threatening to postpone Phuket’s reopening if daily Covid-19 cases rose into double digits on the island.
Phiphat says, if successful, officials will use the Phuket trial as a blueprint to open nine more popular tourist destinations on October 1: Bangkok, Chonburi, Chiang Mai, Petchaburi, Prachuap Kiri Khan, Phang Nga, Krabi, Surat Thani and Buriram.
Currently, Bangkok and five other provinces are under coronavirus restrictions for 30 days that came into effect on June 28 following a rise in Covid-19 cases.
Outside of Phuket, all incoming travelers must quarantine for 14 days in an Alternative State Quarantine (ASQ) facility.
Entering the Phuket Sandbox
For those who do wish to fly into Phuket, a list of conditions must be met.
Only travelers coming from pre-approved countries or territories are permitted to enter, and are required to stay in an accredited hotel for 14 days before traveling elsewhere in the country.
Visitors must apply for a Certificate of Entry. They will also need to provide proof of an insurance policy that covers treatment for Covid-19 up to the cost of $100,000, a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of departure and a certificate of vaccination against Covid-19 with an approved vaccine administered no less than 14 days before their travel date.
Upon entering the country, travelers need to go through a series of screening checkpoints at the airport, and will be subjected to a Covid-19 swab test. They will then need to await the results at their hotel before they are permitted to travel freely on the island. On day seven of their visit, they’ll be required to undergo a second Covid-19 test.
A full list of requirements can be found on the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s website.
Top image: An aerial photograph shows a lone visitor on Phuket’s Karon Beach on June 30, 2021 — one day before the launch of the Phuket Sandbox tourism scheme. Credit: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP/Getty Images
™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.
CNN’s Karla Cripps contributed to this feature.