Bangkok: Thai authorities on Tuesday greenlighted a pilot model for quarantine-free travel to ultra-popular beach destination Phuket, a first step towards the tourist-hungry kingdom's goal of resuscitating its pandemic-battered economy.
Thailand has imposed strict restrictions on visitor arrivals in order to stem the coronavirus, but discouraging visitors has led to its economy recording the worst performance since the 1997 Asian financial crisis. The hugely important tourism industry has been on tenterhooks since March, when the government floated the so-called "Phuket sandbox" scheme, which would have allowed vaccinated tourists to enter the country without undergoing the usual two week's quarantine.
But after a third wave of Covid infections engulfed the country in April, the scheme appeared to be on the back burner, thanks to muddy messaging from authorities. Tourism officials and members of Thailand's Covid taskforce announced Friday the sandbox scheme was set to begin on July 1.
On Tuesday -- eight days before its launch -- government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said the cabinet of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha had officially given the scheme its blessing. Besides Phuket, the other destinations include Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao -- all sun-soaked islands renowned for clear waters and sandy beaches. But tricky caveats to ensure the sandbox goes ahead without any disruptions include keeping infection rates low -- in Phuket the number of weekly Covid cases cannot exceed 90.
"As of today, the number of (infection cases) in Phuket can still ensure that the Phuket sandbox scheme will go on," said Covid-19 taskforce spokesman Taweesin Visanuyothin on Tuesday. Thailand's tentpole tourism industry previously made up almost 20 percent of its national income. Its losses have reverberated through other sectors including restaurants, transportation and the service industry. PM Prayut has come under vociferous criticism for his handling of the pandemic -- from the start-stop process in instating restrictions and the lack of state support for impacted sectors to the procurement of vaccines. The premier announced last week that he plans for Thailand to fully reopen to foreign visitors by October -- a vow that would require his administration to hit the target of innoculating 50 million Thais in four months, he said.