A year after the launch of the Phuket Sandbox on July 1, 2021, Thailand is leading the tourism recovery in Southeast Asia. It has been a challenging and politicized 12 months, and several uncertainties remain for the travel industry.
An army general wearing a mask waving to tourists inside Phuket International Airport was among the most surreal images of the Covid-19 era.
On July 1, 2021, the Prime Minister of Thailand General Prayut Chan-o-cha greeted the first foreign arrivals in the Phuket Sandbox scheme. Those who disembarked took with them the hopes of the tourism industry after nearly 16 months of pandemic shutdown.
The road for Thailand to become the first Southeast Asian country to reopen to tourism since the March 2020 border closure has been politically arduous. The prime minister has now applauded the first phase of his plan to reopen the entire country by the end of October.
Special Tourist Visa
Covid-19 arrived early in Thailand. On January 13, 2020, it became the first country outside of China to confirm a case. In March, the government had declared a state of emergency. Strict travel bans were imposed. Tourist activity evaporated.
Thailand subsequently brought the first wave of the pandemic under control. Between May and September, there were 102 days without any locally transmitted cases.
This success encouraged an attempt to encourage long-term travel with the Special Tourist Visa. Introduced in October 2020, it coincided with strict travel restrictions in Thailand’s key Asian markets and widespread concerns about the safety of flying.
The special tourist visa quickly disappeared from view, but over the next 9 months, Thailand stepped up efforts to restore inbound tourism and revive its stagnant economy.
Covid-19 Tourism Economy
In 2019, Thailand was the most visited country in Southeast Asia, attracting 39.8 million visitors – more than double the 19.2 million visitors in 2011. Tourist spending increased accordingly.
Tourism contributed 12% of GDP in 2019 and employed 20% of the workforce. The magnitude of these numbers is highlighted by the fact that Thailand has the second largest economy in Southeast Asia, after Indonesia.
Then came Covid-19. With its borders closed, Thailand’s 2.3% economic growth in 2019 was followed by a -6.1% reversal in 2020. It was the country’s worst economic slowdown since the Asian financial crisis in 1998.
Restoring tourism, which generated foreign exchange and tax revenue for the government and provided jobs and a way out of poverty for many people, became a priority.
These factors explain the consequent politicization of tourism, with the prime minister playing a highly visible role in the reopening of the airport’s doors. It also explains why he led the chorus of greetings to passengers on the first international flight from Phuket since March 2020.
The Phuket Sandbox
The task of restoring Thai tourism was entrusted to the Phuket Sandbox, which was set up over the course of several months by the government, health authorities and the tourism board. Although much criticized for being too cumbersome and bureaucratic, the Phuket Sandbox will be remembered as a major milestone for the Southeast Asian travel industry.
Phuket was selected to host a pilot tourism project for four reasons: It is an island isolated from the majority population of Thailand. Phuket has an airport and strong medical infrastructure. In addition, it is an established tourist destination, having received 10.5 million visitors in 2019.
Under the Phuket Sandbox, vaccinated foreign tourists from 66 countries were allowed to visit Phuket without carrying out a formal quarantine. Visitors were required to stay on the island for 14 days at an accredited hotel before taking a Covid-19 test. A negative result unlocked further trips to Thailand.
A few weeks later, the Samui Plus program allowed the islands of Koh Samui, Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Tao to operate a Sandbox scheme, albeit with slightly different rules.
7 + 7 Extension
A month later, the “Phuket Sandbox 7 + 7 Extension” started. Under this model, travelers who spend seven days in Phuket can move to eight other island destinations – including Koh Samui, Koh Phi Phi and Ko Pha Ngan – to complete the second seven days of their mandatory 14-day stay before traveling to elsewhere in Thailand.
While the Phuket Sandbox generated global hype, arrival numbers were underwhelming. In July 2021, the first month of the scheme, 18,060 visitors arrived. Over the next three months, the Phuket Sandbox received just 47,610 visitors.
Tourists complained about the administrative burden and confusing components of Sandbox. Controversially, vaccinated Thai travelers were initially excluded from the scheme.
Meanwhile, Thailand was experiencing its first outbreak of Covid-19 infections, which reached 22,782 daily cases as of August 12, 2021. The Delta variant was also cutting across Southeast Asia, and the likelihood of attracting regional tourists has decreased.
It was time to rethink.
Despite the obvious flaws of the Phuket Sandbox, the concept was taken advantage of by other Southeast Asian governments when the Delta Wave began to wane.
Indonesia has accelerated its vaccine program on the island of Bali, although its reopening has been delayed until March 2022. Langkawi in Malaysia and Phu Quoc in Vietnam have organized pilot sandbox schemes for vaccinated travelers. While visitor numbers were moderate, both projects allowed airports and tourism authorities to test new health and safety protocols. This paved the way for the reopening of Vietnam and Malaysia a few months later in April 2022.
test and follow
Thailand chose a different route. On November 1, 2021, the Test & Go scheme was introduced. Vaccinated visitors were required to pre-apply for a Thailand Pass by submitting various documents online, including proof of vaccination. After approval, a one-night stay needed to be pre-booked (and pre-paid) at a specific hotel to await the result of a PCRT test on arrival. If the test was negative, travelers were free to explore Thailand. But if a member of a traveling group or family or a close contact on the plane tested positive, the grim destination was a quarantine hotel.
While the Phuket Sandbox was confined to Phuket, Test & Go allowed tourists to arrive at select airports, including Bangkok, and was timed to coincide with the tourist peak season.
Test & Go showed immediate results. In its first month, November 2021, Thailand received 91,260 visitors – significantly more than the four-month Phuket Sandbox scheme. In December, arrivals jumped to 230,500.
Applications for Test & Go were temporarily suspended at the start of the Omicron wave, but resumed in early 2022. On May 1, 2022, PCR testing on arrival was phased out. That month, 521,420 visitors arrived. In June, the number will exceed 600,000.
So far in 2022, Thailand has welcomed 1.9 million tourists, “an increase of 4,621% compared to the same period in 2021”.
Consequently, Thailand predicts a minimum of 7 million visitors in 2022, rising to 20 million in 2023 – which would surpass the 2011 total.
Exactly one year since the start of the Phuket Sandbox on July 1, 2022, the Thailand Pass registration process is being removed. Thailand has also rescinded its mask mandate, allowed bars to stay open late and decriminalized cannabis.
Elephant in the airport lounge
From the depths of despair in July 2021, Southeast Asia’s travel landscape has been transformed. The region is now open to tourism.
Difficult challenges arose. China, the region’s main source of tourism, remains closed, air fares are high and some airports are overcrowded at peak times. Inflation is rampant, interest rates are rising and currencies are weakening.
The elephant in the airport lobby, however, remains Covid-19. Singapore and Indonesia have warned of rising numbers of infections, and the travel industry fears governments could impose new restrictions in the coming months.
With headwinds circling, Southeast Asia is still sailing into uncharted territory – but its recent progress is largely attributable to the unloved and clunky Phuket Sandbox.
– Asia media center