One year after the launch of the Phuket Sandbox on July 1, 2021, Thailand is spearheading the tourism recovery in Southeast Asia. It has been a difficult and politicized 12 months, and many uncertainties remain for the travel industry.
An army general wearing a mask greeting tourists inside Phuket International Airport was among the most surreal images of the Covid-19 era.
On July 1, 2021, Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha welcomed the first foreign arrivals to the Phuket Sandbox program. Those who landed carried with them the hopes of the tourism industry after nearly 16 months of pandemic shutdown.
The path for Thailand to become the first Southeast Asian country to reopen to tourism since borders closed in March 2020 had been politically arduous. The Prime Minister has now applauded the first phase of his plan to reopen the whole 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 declared a state of emergency. Strict travel bans have been imposed. Tourist activity has evaporated.
Thailand then controlled the first wave of the pandemic. Between May and September, there were 102 days without a locally transmitted case.
This success encouraged an attempt to boost long-term travel with the special tourist visa. Introduced in October 2020, it coincided with strict travel restrictions in Thailand’s main Asian markets and widespread concerns about flight safety.
The special tourist visa soon disappeared, but over the next 9 months Thailand stepped up its efforts to restore inbound tourism and breathe new life into its stagnant economy.
Economics of tourism Covid-19
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 has increased accordingly.
Tourism contributed 12% to GDP in 2019 and employed 20% of the workforce. The magnitude of these numbers is evidenced by the fact that Thailand is Southeast Asia’s second largest economy, after Indonesia.
Then came Covid-19. With its borders closed, Thailand’s 2.3% economic growth in 2019 was followed by a decline of -6.1% in 2020. It was the country’s deepest economic downturn since the financial crisis. Asian of 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 ensuing politicization of tourism, with the Prime Minister playing a highly visible role in reopening the airport’s gates. It also explains why he led the chorus of greetings for passengers on Phuket‘s first international flight since March 2020.
The Phuket Sandbox
The task of restoring Thai tourism has been given to the Phuket Sandbox, which has been replenished over several months by the government, health officials and the tourism board. Although heavily criticized for being overly complicated and bureaucratic, the Phuket Sandbox will be remembered as an important landmark for the Southeast Asian travel industry.
Phuket was chosen 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 a strong medical infrastructure. Additionally, it is an established tourist destination, having received 10.5 million visitors in 2019.
Under the Phuket Sandbox, vaccinated foreign tourists from 66 countries have been allowed to visit Phuket without undertaking a formal quarantine. Visitors had to stay on the island for 14 days in an accredited hotel before taking a Covid-19 test. A negative result unlocked the continuation of travel 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 system, albeit with slightly different rules.
7 + 7 Expansion
A month later, the “Phuket Sandbox 7+7 Extension” started. According to this model, travelers spending seven days in Phuket could 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 elsewhere in Thailand. Thailand.
Although the Phuket Sandbox generated worldwide hype, the number of arrivals was disappointing. In July 2021, the first month of the program, 18,060 visitors arrived. Over the next three months, the Phuket Sandbox received only 47,610 visitors.
Tourists have complained about the administrative burden and confusing elements of the Sandbox. Controversially, vaccinated Thai travelers were initially excluded from the program.
Meanwhile, Thailand was experiencing its first wave of Covid-19 infections, which peaked at 22,782 daily cases on August 12, 2021. The Delta variant also crossed Southeast Asia, and the likelihood of attracting regional tourists has declined.
It was time to rethink.
Despite the Phuket Sandbox’s obvious flaws, the concept was picked up by other Southeast Asian governments as the Delta Wave began to subside.
Indonesia has accelerated its vaccination program on the island of Bali, although its reopening has been delayed until March 2022. Langkawi in Malaysia and Phu Quoc in Vietnam have hosted pilot sandbox programs for vaccinated travellers. Although visitor numbers were moderate, both projects allowed airports and tourism authorities to test new health and safety protocols. This paved the way for Vietnam and Malaysia to reopen a few months later in April 2022.
Test and go
Thailand has chosen another route. On November 1, 2021, the Test & Go program was introduced. Vaccinated visitors had to pre-apply for a Thailand Pass, submitting various documents online, including proof of vaccination. Upon approval, a one-night stay had to be pre-booked (and pre-paid) at a specified hotel to await a PCRT test result upon arrival. If the test was negative, travelers were free to explore Thailand. But if a member of a traveling party or family or 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 peak tourist season.
Test & Go provided immediate results. In its first month, November 2021, Thailand welcomed 91,260 visitors, far more than the four-month Phuket Sandbox program. In December, arrivals jumped to 230,500.
Test & Go requests were temporarily suspended at the start of the Omicron wave but restarted in early 2022. On May 1, 2022, PCR testing on arrival was discontinued. That month, 521,420 visitors arrived. In June, the figure 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 of 2021”.
Therefore, Thailand expects a minimum of 7 million visitors in 2022, rising to 20 million in 2023 – which would exceed the 2011 total.
Exactly one year after the start of the Phuket Sandbox, on July 1, 2022, the Thailand Pass registration process is abolished. Thailand also canceled 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 tourism landscape has been transformed. The region is now open to tourism.
Difficult challenges have arisen. China, the region’s main source market for tourism, remains closed, airline fares are high and some airports are overcrowded during peak hours. Inflation is rampant, interest rates are rising and currencies are weakening.
The elephant in the airport lounge, however, remains Covid-19. Singapore and Indonesia have warned of rising infection numbers, and the travel industry fears governments will impose new restrictions in the coming months.
With headwinds swirling around, Southeast Asia is still navigating uncharted territory – but its recent progress is largely attributable to the unloved and unwieldy Phuket Sandbox.
– Asia Media Center