In addition to the Phuket sandbox, Thailand has opened three more regions for foreign tourists in the south of the country
Thailand has added three popular beach destinations to its “Sandbox” programme, allowing foreign tourists to bypass compulsory isolation and throwing a lifeline to the coronavirus-hit tourism industry, which is seen as key to the nascent economic recovery.
Starting January 11, vaccinated foreign tourists can enter Krabi, Phangnga and Koh Samui provinces in addition to Phuket under the so-called “sandbox” programme, which does not require quarantine as long as tourists spend at least a week in the place.
The easing of entry rules is another attempt by Thailand to rebuild its tourism industry, as the emergence of the omicron variant has triggered a new wave of coronavirus infection.
Last week, Thailand indefinitely suspended Test&Go, a broader quarantine exemption programme, to quell an outbreak of new cases, although the programme has helped attract some 350,000 international tourists in just two months.
“Although the number of tourists coming to Samui under the sandbox programme is likely to be 50 per cent lower, it is still better than zero, better than a total travel ban,” said Samui Tourism Association president Ratchaporn Pulsawadi. “The suspension came at the peak of the tourist season, so the impact on the sector is quite significant.”
A failed strategy to restart international tourism would weaken Thailand’s growth prospects, as, before the pandemic, the tourism sector contributed almost a fifth to the country’s economy, with 40 million foreign tourists bringing in more than $60 billion in 2019.
The emergence of new options and the subsequent imposition of restrictions, both in Thailand and elsewhere, poses a significant risk to estimates of tourist arrivals to Thailand and the growth of its economy, said Deutsche Bank economist Juliana Lee.
“In fact, it could take years for global tourism to fully normalise. It will take time for tourists to gain confidence in travelling abroad – people won’t want to go to far away and unfamiliar places until they are confident of the effectiveness of the treatment.”
The resort island of Phuket, which became the first Thai province to lift its mandatory quarantine for vaccinated tourists as of July 1, is currently battling the biggest spike in daily cases since the pandemic began, and about 60 per cent of hospital beds are occupied. But local officials have vowed to continue the programme, saying the island’s health system can cope with the epidemic.
Daily Covid-19 cases in Phuket have broken records in the past three days: Phuket – disease spike after New Year
“The outbreak situation in Phuket is no different from many other countries. We are now adding the option for travellers to isolate themselves in hotel rooms,” Phuket Tourism Association president Bhummikitti Ruktaengam said.
“What Thailand has done with the suspension and adjustments shows that we took a quick decision to limit the damage and made changes as new information was received,” added Bhummikitti.
Cases of coronavirus infection in Thailand have risen sharply since the New Year holidays, and the omicron variant now accounts for the majority of new infections detected at entry and among the local population. Thailand reported 7133 new cases on Tuesday.
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