PHUKET, Thailand – Thailand embarked on an ambitious but risky plan on Thursday that it hopes will breathe new life into a tourism industry devastated by the pandemic, opening up the popular resort island of Phuket to fully vaccinated foreigners from the countries low risk.
Upon arrival of the first flight, airport fire trucks detonated their water cannons to form an arch over Abu Dhabi’s Etihad jet as it rolled to its door.
Leaving the airport, Frenchman Bruno Souillard said he had dreamed of returning to Thailand for a year and jumped at the opportunity.
“I am very, very happy,” said the 60-year-old tourist.
The ‘Phuket sandbox‘ program comes as coronavirus infections rise in Thailand, including a significant number of cases of the Delta variant, and many have questioned whether it is too early to attract tourists and whether they will return in. significant number in any case due to the restrictions they will always face.
But the number of new cases on the island itself is extremely low, single digits per day, and more than 70% of its residents are fully vaccinated. The government is betting that travelers will be willing to accept coronavirus regulations for the opportunity to have a beach vacation after being locked in their home country for months.
Before the pandemic, the tourism sector accounted for around 20% of the Thai economy and 95% of Phuket’s income.
The resort island off the south coast received less than half a million visitors in the first five months, and almost no foreigners, up from more than 3 million during the same period last year, including some 2 million foreigners.
Winking at the importance of the sandbox plan, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha traveled to Phuket to attend the launch in person.
He stressed that the sandbox was only the first step towards its goal announced in June of fully reopening Thailand within 120 days.