Thailand’s ‘paradise island’ Phuket reopens to tourists

People walk almost empty Kata beach as Phuket reopens to overseas tourists, allowing foreigners fully vaccinated against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) to visit the resort island without quarantine, in Phuket, Thailand July 1, 2021. Picture taken with a drone. (Reuters/Jorge Silva)

PHUKET, Thailand — Hundreds of vaccinated foreign tourists arrived on the Thai resort island of Phuket on Thursday, the first visitors to its beaches and golf courses under a pilot program designed to revive a tourism industry devastated by the pandemic.

Under the “Phuket sandbox” plan, foreign tourists vaccinated against COVID-19 will not have to spend any time in quarantine and can move around the island freely.

After 14 days, provided three coronavirus tests they must take are negative, they can travel elsewhere in the country.

“I’m so happy to be here,” said Ian Shore, a British tourist who flew in from Abu Dhabi. “What could be better than getting stuck on a paradise island?”

Almost 400 people are expected to arrive in Phuket on the first day that flights resumed from Israel, Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Singapore, the government said.

Millions of people visited Phuket every year before the pandemic and the government and tourism industry hope the reopening will help save its battered economy.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who flew to the island to oversee the reopening, thanked officials and health workers, stressing the success of Phuket would pave the way for a larger reopening of Thailand’s borders scheduled for October.

The government expects about 100,000 foreign tourists to visit Phuket in the third quarter of this year and generate 8.9 billion baht ($278 million) in revenue.

Thailand lost about $50 billion in tourism revenue last year as foreign arrivals plunged 83% to 6.7 million, from a record 39.9 million in 2019. Phuket was hit particularly hard by job losses and business closures.

While Phuket has seen few COVID-19 cases ahead of its reopening, Thailand on Thursday reported a daily record of 57 deaths from the coronavirus, the second day in a row of record-high fatalities, as authorities struggle to control a third wave of infections.

“We know that there is a risk … but we have to accept the risk so Thai people can make a living,” Prayuth told reporters.

The latest deaths take Thailand’s total fatalities to 2,080 since the pandemic started. The country’s COVID-19 task force also reported 5,533 new coronavirus cases, bringing the total number of infections to 264,834. ($1 = 32.0200 baht)
—Additional report by Panu Wongcha-um, Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Ed Davies, Robert Birsel and Mike Collett-White