One year after the launch of the Phuket Sandbox, on 1 July 2021, Thailand is spearheading South East Asia’s tourism recovery. It has been a challenging and politicized 12 months, and several uncertainties remain for the travel industry.
A mask-wearing army general waving at tourists inside Phuket International Airport was among the most surreal images of the Covid-19 era.
On 1 July 2021, Thailand’s Prime Minister, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, greeted the first foreign arrivals in the Phuket Sandbox scheme. Those disembarking carried with them the hopes of the tourism industry after nearly 16 months of pandemic shutdown.
The pathway for Thailand to become the first South East Asian nation to reopen for tourism since the border closures in March 2020 had been politically arduous. The Prime Minister now cheered the first phase of his plan to reopen the entire country by the end of October.
Special Tourism Visa
Covid-19 arrived early in Thailand. On 13 January 2020, it became the first country outside China to confirm a case. By March, the government had declared a state of emergency. Strict travel bans were imposed. Tourism activity evaporated.
Thailand subsequently controlled the first wave of the pandemic. Between May and September, it went 102 days without a locally transmitted case.
This success emboldened an attempt to stimulate long-stay travel with the Special Tourist Visa. Introduced in October 2020, it coincided with tight travel restrictions in Thailand’s key Asian markets and widespread concerns about the safety of flying.
The Special Tourist Visa quickly faded from view, but over the next 9 months Thailand stepped up efforts to restore inbound tourism and breathe life into its stagnating economy.
Covid-19 Tourism Economics
In 2019, Thailand was South East Asia’s most visited country, attracting 39.8 million visitors – more than double the 19.2 million visitors in 2011. Tourist spending expanded accordingly.
Tourism contributed 12 percent of GDP in 2019, and employed 20 percent of the workforce. The magnitude of those figures is highlighted by Thailand having the second-largest economy in South East Asia, after Indonesia.
Then came Covid-19. With its borders closed, Thailand’s 2.3 percent economic growth in 2019 was followed by a -6.1 percent reverse in 2020. It was the nation’s steepest economic downturn since the Asian financial crisis in 1998.
Restoring tourism, which generated foreign exchange and tax revenues for the government and provided jobs and a route out of poverty for many people, became a priority.
These factors explain the ensuing politicisation of tourism, with the Prime Minister playing a highly visible role to reopen the airport 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 was bestowed on the Phuket Sandbox, which was pieced together across several months by the government, health officials and the tourism board. Although heavily criticised for being too complicated and bureaucratic, the Phuket Sandbox will be remembered as an important landmark for South East Asia’s travel industry.
Phuket was selected to host a pilot tourism scheme for four reasons: It is an island isolated from Thailand’s majority population. Phuket has an airport and a strong medical infrastructure. Plus, 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 permitted to visit Phuket without undertaking a formal quarantine. Visitors were required to stay on the island for 14 days in an accredited hotel before taking a Covid-19 test. A negative result unlocked onward travel in Thailand.
A couple of weeks later the Samui Plus programme enabled the islands of Koh Samui, Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Tao to operate a Sandbox scheme, albeit with slightly different rules.
7 + 7 Extension
One month later, the “Phuket Sandbox 7 + 7 Extension” began. Under this model, travellers spending seven days in Phuket could relocate 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 travelling elsewhere in Thailand.
Although 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 welcomed just 47,610 visitors.
Tourists complained about the administrative burden and the confusing components of the Sandbox. Controversially, vaccinated Thai travellers were initially excluded from the scheme.
Meanwhile, Thailand was experiencing its first surge of Covid-19 infections, which peaked at 22,782 daily cases on 12 August 2021. The Delta variant was also scything through South East Asia, and the likelihood of attracting regional tourists receded.
It was time for a rethink.
Despite the evident flaws of the Phuket Sandbox, the concept was seized upon by other South East Asian governments as the Delta Wave began to subside.
Indonesia accelerated its vaccine programme on the island of Bali, although its reopening was delayed until March 2022. Langkawi in Malaysia and Phu Quoc in Vietnam hosted pilot Sandbox schemes for vaccinated travellers. Although visitor numbers were subdued, both projects enabled 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 & Go
Thailand chose a different route. On 1 November 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. Upon approval, a one-night stay needed to be pre-booked (and pre-paid) at a specified hotel to await the result of an on-arrival PCR test. If the test was negative, travellers were free to explore Thailand. But if a member of a travelling party or family or a close contact on the plane tested positive, the grim destination was a quarantine hotel.
Whereas the Phuket Sandbox was confined to Phuket, Test & Go enabled tourists to arrive at selected airports, including Bangkok, and was timed to coincide with peak tourism season.
Test & Go delivered immediate results. In its first month, November 2021, Thailand welcomed 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 onset of the Omicron wave but restarted in early 2022. On 1 May 2022, the on-arrival PCR test was eliminated. That month, 521,420 visitors arrived. In June, the figure will surpass 600,000.
So far in 2022, Thailand has welcomed 1.9 million tourists, “an increase of 4,621 percent compared to the same 2021 period.”
Consequently, Thailand forecasts a minimum of 7 million visitors in 2022, rising to 20 million in 2023 – which would surpass the 2011 total.
Exactly one year from the start of the Phuket Sandbox, on 1 July 2022, the Thailand Pass registration process is being removed. Thailand has also rescinded its mask mandate, permitted bars to stay open late and decriminalised cannabis.
Elephant in the Airport Lounge
From the depths of despair in July 2021, South East Asia’s travel landscape has been transformed. The region is now open for tourism.
Tough challenges have emerged. China, the region’s primary tourism source market, remains closed, airline 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 lounge, though, remains Covid-19. Singapore and Indonesia have cautioned about rising infection numbers, and the travel industry is wary that governments could impose new restrictions in the coming months.
With headwinds circling, South East Asia is still navigating uncharted territory – but its recent progress is largely attributable to the unloved and unwieldy Phuket Sandbox.
- Asia Media Centre