Our regular readers will know that Thailand has been making progressive moves to gear up for the return of international tourists over the last few months, and although restrictions initially remained quite unrealistic for most travellers, they have been gradually becoming less onerous.
In January we reported how a new “Welcome Back to Thailand Again” campaign was due to launch in Q3 2021, and earlier this month the government announced a policy to reduce arrival quarantine from 15 days to 7 days for vaccinated travellers.
Today a panel led by the Prime Minister approved a proposal for the reopening of the popular tourist resort island of Phuket to vaccinated foreign tourists from 1st July 2021, three months ahead of the rest of Thailand, which is now aiming to reopen from 1st October 2021.
Phuket Tourism Sandbox
The reopening plan is called the “Phuket Tourism Sandbox”.
It will permit vaccinated tourists from low-risk countries to avoid any arrival quarantine period after landing into Phuket, provided they remain within designated tourism areas.
Crucially, the proposal involves gaining ‘herd immunity’ on the island, by vaccinating 70% of its 500,000 or so residents and tourism workers, which will require over 900,000 vaccine doses to be administered in two batches.
“Previously, Phuket set 1st October for quarantine-free entry. But the new sandbox with an earlier starting date will benefit the whole country as we can evaluate this programme first before Thailand reopens all its borders in October.”Yuthasak Supasorn, Governor – Tourism Authority of Thailand
The first groups to receive vaccinations in Phuket will include public health officials in close contact with COVID-19 patients, employees in the local service industry, such as hotel, airport and dock workers, and people with underlying health problems.
Earlier this week, Phuket’s public health chief Kusak Kukiatkul said the island will receive its second batch of 100,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses on Monday to prepare for the planned reopening. Vaccination will start on 1st April 2021.
Under the ‘sandbox’ plan, tourists who participate in the quarantine-free programme will be required to show a vaccine certificate, vaccine passport or IATA travel pass, according to the Bangkok Post.
Singapore vaccination records are already digitised, within the HealthHub app, but these will have to link into a mutually recognised system like IATA Travel Pass in the months to come as travel starts to pick up again.
Travellers will still have to take a PCR test at the airport and activate the ThailandPlus tracing application while in Phuket.
Singapore – Phuket flights
Singapore Airlines is currently operating a limited twice-weekly flight schedule to Phuket on its newly-inherited Boeing 737-800 aircraft, every Thursday and Sunday.
Current SIA Singapore – Phuket schedule
Once arrival quarantine restrictions are lifted, we expect many more flights to be added not just by SIA but other airlines too.
This schedule will be trimmed to something a lot less than that, even as quarantine-free visits are allowed, so beware when booking or redeeming that the final flight schedule is not yet known.
In January 2020, prior to COVID-19, there were 78 flights per week in each direction on the Singapore – Phuket route, operated by the following carriers:
- SilkAir: 28/wk
- Scoot: 19/wk
- Jetstar: 17/wk
- AirAsia: 7/wk
- SIA: 7/wk
While a return to any schedule this significant is unlikely in the early stages, many or all of these airlines are no doubt keen to tap into the likely demand a zero-quarantine leisure travel arrangement would generate, especially while so few other options are available for Singapore residents.
Chinese tourists are likely to be the first beneficiaries of the new policy, though it’s almost certain that vaccinated Singapore residents will also be eligible. Qatar Airways has also returned to Phuket in recent months, offering one-stop links for European tourists.
These are the one-way KrisFlyer miles redemption rates for flights between Singapore and Phuket on SIA flights.
|KrisFlyer Redemption Rates
Singapore ⇆ Phuket
It would be great if a targeted ‘Spontaneous Escapes’ type deal was resurrected on the route, offering mileage discounts for last-minute bookings, but that probably won’t sit well until general government advice shifts from discouraging overseas trips.
What about quarantine in Singapore?
For most of our readers, this is the most important stumbling block associated with Phuket’s quarantine-free tourism plan.
Currently those returning from Thailand face a mandatory 14-day SHN period, served either at home (under certain conditions) or in a dedicated facility at their own expense.
While that’s something those who work from home may be able to consider, it will discourage a lot of people, so for the zero quarantine visit to Phuket for travellers from Singapore to really take off there would probably have to also be some relaxation here.
Good news on that part is that the Singapore government has already hinted towards a future relaxation of SHN requirements for vaccinated travellers returning from certain countries, subject to pending (but almost inevitable) evidence that vaccines reduce transmission, even when a vaccinated individual succumbs to the virus.
“If you have the vaccination, you travel to a high-risk place, you come back, can that SHN be shortened, or even done away with completely? That is the big question.
“We still don’t know the extent to which a vaccination can completely – or how significantly – help reduce transmission risk. So, those studies are still pending. If indeed the data shows that transmission risks can come down significantly with vaccination, then certainly, we will consider reducing drastically the SHN or even doing away with it.”Lawrence Wong, Singapore Education Minister
While peer-reviewed studies are still awaited, data already points to a potential four-fold decrease in transmission among those fully vaccinated in the UK, and even more in a preliminary Israeli study.
If proven, it means that even if vaccinated people get infected with COVID-19, they are less contagious and would therefore offer protection to unvaccinated people.
Theoretically a “vaccinated with testing” combination should then be a safe proposition for incoming visitors and returning residents, but time will tell what scheme the government ultimately come up with, and whether it will be extended to those arriving or returning from Phuket by 1st July.
Full vaccination is a likely requirement
Another aspect to consider is that you’re not vaccinated until you’ve completed the required dosage course. Most countries define “fully vaccinated” as two weeks after your second dose (for two-dose vaccines), and this is an almost inevitable requirement to avoid quarantine in Phuket from 1st July.
Here’s an example of how that works for the two vaccines currently being administered in Singapore.
Example dosage to full vaccination timeline
|1st dose||1st June 2021||1st June 2021|
|+ 21 days||+ 28 days|
|2nd dose||22nd June 2021||29th June 2021|
|+ 14 days||+ 14 days|
|Fully vaccinated||6th July 2021||13th July 2021|
As you can see, even if you get your first vaccine dose in early June 2021, it will be early to mid-July 2021 before you are considered fully vaccinated with the necessary immunity to travel, in cases like this where vaccinated status is a requirement.
As of 22nd March 2021, 1,071,908 vaccine doses have been administered to Singapore residents, with 300,611 having completed the full vaccination regimen (two doses).
At the current vaccination rate of around 280,000 shots per week, nearly 5 million doses will have been administered by early June 2021, opening up a potential quarantine-free visit to Phuket to a decent proportion of Singapore residents during the initial rollout of this plan.
Thailand’s economy relies very heavily on international tourism, and that’s even more prevalent in resort destinations like Phuket, so it’s not too surprising to see the island set to be one of the first to open to overseas visitors as COVID-19 vaccinations progressively roll out across the world.
Indeed Phuket now looks set to open three months earlier than the rest of the country, a bold step that will hopefully lay the groundwork for future tourist arrival frameworks in other parts of Thailand. This ‘first mover’ advantage will no doubt be favourable for the island, with millions globally now fully inoculated and eager to travel after over a year without an overseas trip in most cases.
While the ‘Phuket Sandbox’ policy is more specifically targeted at tourists from China, the USA and Europe, over a million Singapore residents should be vaccinated by mid-year and are likely to be eligible to take advantage too, though the question of quarantine on return will remain the biggest stumbling block.
The Thai island of Koh Samui is also planning to reopen for quarantine-free tourism under a similar ‘sealed’ arrangement in the coming months, potentially adding another leisure travel option for the second half of the year.
(Cover Photo: Hyatt Corporation)