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Phuket to delay July tourism reopening, as Thailand fights third COVID wave

Plans to open Phuket quarantine-free to vaccinated tourists on 1 July have been derailed by a new COVID-19 outbreak.

A recent sharp spike of COVID-19 cases in Bangkok and 17 other provinces across Thailand is threatening to derail Phuket’s “Tourism Sandbox” plan for reopening quarantine-free to vaccinated visitors from July, with government officials warning the proposal’s launch date will now have to be “reset”.

A key element of the tourism restart was a plan to administer close to a million vaccine doses to the local population on the popular resort island, to achieve herd immunity by June, in advance of vaccinated tourists arriving.

However, the sudden rise in new COVID-19 cases, predominantly in other parts of Thailand including Bangkok and Chiang Mai, means vaccines are now being redistributed to these provinces, making it almost impossible for Phuket to stick to its original reopening plan.

Thailand is seeing a sudden surge in COVID-19 cases. (Source: Our World in Data)

Thailand recorded 1,547 new COVID-19 cases yesterday, close to Friday’s record 1,585 new cases. In Bangkok, which has been declared a “red zone”, restrictions have been placed on restaurants and cafes, with nightlife venues like bars and massage parlours shuttered nationwide for at least the next two weeks.

Latest statistics show that Thailand has administered over 600,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses, though with its huge 70-million population that means only around 0.8% of its residents have received at least one dose so far.

Quarantine has been cut to seven days

This month Thailand reduced its mandatory quarantine period from 15 days to 10 days for those without vaccination, and to seven days for those fully vaccinated, having completed their doses with one of seven approved vaccines at least two weeks prior to travel.

Travellers from 54 approved countries, including Singapore, can now visit the country as tourists for 30 days without a visa.

Under the ‘sandbox’ plan in Phuket, vaccinated tourists who participate in the quarantine-free programme will be required to show a vaccine certificatevaccine passport or IATA travel pass, with the original aim for this relaxed requirement to apply from 1st July.

Travellers would still have to take a PCR test at the airport and activate the ThailandPlus tracing application while in Phuket.

Singapore Airlines is currently operating twice-weekly to Phuket using Boeing 737-800s. (Photo: Plane’s Portrait Aviation Media / Malcolm Lu)

As of 6th April 2021, over 535,000 Singapore residents have received both vaccine doses, though that total should exceed 2 million by mid-June 2021, with all those people then achieving “fully vaccinated” status by 1st July 2021.

Could certain zones still open?

One possibility, as the Bangkok Post reported yesterday, is that only specific zones in Phuket could be opened for tourism, but it also seems inevitable that the timeline even for this option would likely slip from the original 1st July target.

“We are concerned about the reopening timeline. We still need to discuss the vaccine administration plan. If the herd immunity goal cannot be achieved, we may have to consider opening only certain areas in Phuket.”

Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn, Thailand Tourism and Sports Minister
Limited vaccine availability in Phuket could lead to smaller “green zones” for quarantine-free tourism. (Photo: Sri Panwa)

Both Bali and Bintan in Indonesia have proposed tourism reopening via designated “green zones”, so this is not a new concept.

Interestingly the minister also pointed towards travel bubble discussions with other countries forming part of the decision on a timeline for the Phuket ‘sandbox’ programme.

“Most importantly, we still have to hear from other countries that we already started travel bubble negotiations with about their confidence regarding the same timeline.”

Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn, Thailand Tourism and Sports Minister

It’s not known if Singapore is included on the list, however this would be an important element for encouraging residents here to visit Phuket, since Singapore still enforces a 14-day SHN period on those returning from Thailand for the time being.

Summary

A quarantine-free trip to Thailand in July no longer looks like a realistic prospect, even for vaccinated travellers, with the strategy to fully inoculate the majority of Phuket residents by June now derailed by the more pressing need for vaccines elsewhere in the country.

A new timeline for the ‘sandbox’ plan is expected to be revealed next week, though any prolonged wave of infections across Thailand could easily push the plan back by months.

Importantly, talk of bubble discussions with other countries is promising. A true ‘travel bubble’ between Singapore and Phuket for vaccinated residents would be a great arrangement, meaning no quarantine at either end of the trip, even if it doesn’t happen by July.

(Cover Photo: Shutterstock)

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