Lonely Planet writer Austin Bush recently visited Thailand as part of the “Phuket Sandbox” initiative. He explains what the process looked like and how travelers can visit as well.
Until recently, if you wanted to visit Thailand, the only way to do so was to spend 15 days in Alternate State Quarantine (also known as ASQ). It meant staying in a hotel room, with only occasional, brief escapes outside for sunlight and exercise. I have friends who have done it, and frankly the experience seems unpleasant.
But since July 1, Thailand has launched its high-profile Phuket Sandbox initiative. The plan is as follows: Authorities have vaccinated residents of Phuket in an attempt to achieve so-called “herd immunity” and now allow fully vaccinated visitors to visit the island. Visitors must book accommodation in pre-approved hotels (and clear a number of hurdles which I will explain below) and cannot leave Phuket Island for 15 days, but otherwise they are free to visit beaches and restaurants and explore the island. just as we would have done before the pandemic.
I arrived in Phuket on July 9, one of the first groups of visitors to participate in the initiative. I had planned to arrive a week early but as I applied too early some issues had not been resolved and I was forced to postpone my trip and apply again.
The first steps are, by bureaucratic standards, relatively straightforward. In most cases, you can only apply if you are traveling from a list of countries considered “medium risk”. No more than 30 days before your trip, you will need to upload your passport, visa (if you have one), proof of vaccination, as well as proof of payment for an insurance policy that specifically covers COVID-19, with a minimum coverage of US $ 100,000, valid for the duration of your stay in Thailand (companies that offer this include the Thai General Insurance Association, AXA and Luma, among others). Pre-approval of the CoE can take up to six days.
Once pre-approved, you have 15 days to submit your flight details and hotel reservation. For the former, you have to fly directly to Phuket; transfers via airports elsewhere in Thailand are not permitted. Airlines operating direct international flights to Phuket currently include Thai Airways, Emirates, El Al, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines and British Airways. For the latter, accommodation is only available in one or two of the more than 400 hotels approved by the Thai Safety and Health Administration (known as SHA +), which will appear in the drop-down list of the application process; an unofficial list can be found here. The hotels cover a variety of budgets and locations across the island; I’m not much of a beach lover and prefer easy access to cafes and restaurants, so I picked a cheap guesthouse in Phuket Town, the island’s landlocked urban and cultural hub. You will also need to prepay for the three required COVID-19 tests during the duration of your stay, which cost around US $ 250.
When you have received your CoE, which may take another three days or so, the only remaining step is to obtain proof of an “undetected” result of a COVID-19 PRC test no later than 72 hours before your departure. .
It’s a lot of paperwork, and when checking in for my flight at JFK New York Airport, the check-in staff, who had apparently served several passengers bound for Thailand that evening, told me says, “OK, give me all your trash.” “
Arriving in Phuket I wouldn’t rate the process as efficient, but it could have been a lot worse. After exiting the plane, I was crammed into a row of plastic chairs, where officials came to make sure I had the required documents (superfluous, as far as I know, as these documents already had been submitted and approved), and where I had to show that I had downloaded two mandatory tracking apps: ThailandPlus and MorChana. At the next station, I had to submit a health form and show the results of my PCR test. Next comes immigration. Finally, I had to pass the first of three COVID-19 swab tests. This whole process took me a little less than two hours. From there I hopped in a taxi arranged by my hotel and was escorted to my room. I was not allowed to leave my hotel until I received my test results, which were not available until the next morning. Once I got the go-ahead, I was free to lead the life of a standard tourist – visiting beaches, drinking in bars, eating street food – for the next 14 days. My only obligations are the daily follow-up of app registrations and temperature checks with my hotel, and two more COVID PCR swab tests, one on the seventh day and one on the fourteenth day.
At first, at least, it seems the government is happy with the way things have turned out with the Phuket sandbox and has taken the second step of opening up Thailand to tourists. The Samui Plus program includes the islands of Ko Samui, Ko Pha-ngan and Ko Tao. The initiative involves many of the same stipulations as the Phuket Sandbox, except some air transfers from Bangkok are permitted and travel around the island is somewhat restricted in the first week. After a week in a SHA + hotel in Ko Samui, visitors are free to move to another island. At the time of writing, it was not possible to travel between Phuket or any of the islands involved in Samui Plus during the 15 days.