What it's like to travel to Phuket during the pandemic

Despite ever-changing Covid-19 restrictions, the 'Phuket Sandbox' initiative has been hailed a success, and residents are optimistic about the future

Local residents Stavros from Greece and Valina from Russia dance on an almost empty Kata beach in Phuket. Reuters
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At the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, the vegetation is so lush that the sound of cicadas almost drowns out any human conversation. After not having seen visitors for more than a year owing to the coronavirus pandemic, nature has reclaimed much of this 12-hectare plot, which sits on the border of the Khao Phra Thaeo National Park.

That’s both a blessing and a curse for the centre’s 11 main residents, who are either sick, injured or old, and were rescued from Thailand’s logging and tourism industries. A blessing, because these giants get to freely roam the sanctuary to their hearts content and live out their final years in absolute bliss. And a curse because it's the visitors and regular donors who keep the centre running, help to pay for its staff and for food and medicine for the elephants, bills for which can run up to thousands of bahts a week.

“We used to get 20 to 30 people a day before Covid-19, but now it’s down to 10 to 15,” our guide tells us as we watched Sri Nual, 44, blissfully chomping on pineapple leaves, occasionally using her food to swat insects off her back.

It’s a similar picture in Phuket, which became tourist-reliant Thailand’s first destination to reopen its borders to international visitors on July 1 last year via the Phuket Sandbox initiative, allowing fully vaccinated tourists unfettered entry.

Phuket’s initiative has been hailed as a successful experiment, allowing a trickle of visitors who can stay on the island for 14 days before being allowed to travel further afield. Even after Thailand reimposed mandatory coronavirus quarantine measures for foreign arrivals on December 22 amid rising cases of the Omicron variant, the Phuket Sandbox programme remained operational.

Earlier this month, authorities announced the sandbox programme would now include five other provinces – Krabi, Phang-Nga, Koh Samui, Ko Pha-ngan and Ko Tao.

As one of the country's big tourism destinations, the province typically accounts for more than 20 per cent of Thailand’s total tourism revenue, according to its Ministry of Tourism.

Witoon Chanchumrat, who runs a company that organises experiential activities around Phuket, from yacht parties to themed nights, says things have been slowly picking up since the July reopening.

“I’d get about 20 bookings a month before Covid, which went down to just three a month after the country was shut from visitors,” says the entrepreneur, who started his own fashion label, Toon Collections, earlier this year to help sustain his business.

“Now, I am starting to get enquiries again but no bookings yet. But I am confident they will come back. Things are picking up. We will be back.”

Chanchumrat’s optimism is shared by his friend, Atiporn Kongphet, who left her graphic design career after two years to open her own bar, Beach & Bubbles, last year on Layan Beach.

“I’ve always wanted to have my own business and the pandemic seemed like a good time,” she says. “Even when there were no tourists the locals filled our bar and supported our business.”

Kongphet's bar was buzzing on the afternoon we visited, with most of the spots on the beach, all spaced as per local restrictions, filled in time for sunset.

She says she’d get around 30 to 40 customers a day before the reopening, and now serves anywhere between 50 to 100 a day.

A 20-minute car ride from Beach & Bubbles in Cherngtalay, is the expansive Amanpuri. The flagship property of luxury hotel operator Aman Resorts, the 26.8-hectare resort sits on its own peninsula, providing guests with the ultimate privacy.

It’s a favourite with celebrities, including Beyonce and Jay-Z, as well as Leonardo DiCaprio and Bill Gates, with room rates ranging from $890 to $25,520 a night. Patrick Gauthier, Amanpuri’s regional director of sales and marketing for Asia Pacific, says the property has been doing roaring business since Phuket’s reopening.

Sureesa Jallabert, the co-founder of chic brasserie Maison Napoleon in Cherngtalay says business has been challenging the past year, but is also optimistic about the future.

“There’s been a lot of regulations be it time limitation or alcoholic beverage bans. However, we were able to survive through it with loyal local clients,” she says. “Now that we can see a rise in tourist numbers, we are looking forward to a new normal.

“Thailand is a beautiful country and our people are ready to cater to the world coming to visit us.”

What are the latest restrictions on travel to Thailand?

While the Phuket Sandbox, which allows visitors to move around on the island while undergoing PCR tests, will remain operational, Thailand reimposed mandatory coronavirus quarantine measures for foreign arrivals, in a bid to control the spread of the Omicron variant.

The country, which reopened to fully vaccinated travellers from more than 60 countries in November, suspended its Test and Go scheme for arrivals from December 22, with international visitors having to undergo hotel quarantine for 10 days if they are vaccinated and 14 days if they are unvaccinated.

As of January 20, the Test and Go programme is back, with applications accepted from February 1. Officials have added several new requirements, including proof of prepayment for two separate nights of accommodation at government-approved hotels on day one and day five. According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand, travellers can book two different hotels for the accommodation on day one and five. However, on both days they must stay within the room as they await the results of their mandatory RT-PCR tests.

The Phuket Sandbox, however, remains operational, along with five other provinces added from February 1.

What do I need before I fly to Thailand?

Travellers heading to Thailand's Sandbox destinations must apply for a Thailand Pass before travelling. This will generate a QR code that will be required for entering the country.

To get the pass, visitors must provide proof of vaccination and an approved hotel booking for the first night in Thailand. Travellers also need to confirm they've booked an on-arrival PCR test.

In addition, tourists will also need to show a negative Covid-19 test result taken no more than 72 hours before travel and proof of health insurance covering a minimum of $50,000.

Starting February 1, those travelling to the rest of Thailand can do so under the Test and Go programme. Under the scheme, travellers must fulfil all pre-travel requirements similar to the Sandbox programme. Additionally, they must submit proof of prepayment for two separate nights of accommodation at government-approved hotels on day one and five, and the expenses for the two RT-PCR tests. The prepayment for day one must include an accommodation, a test and a prearranged transfer from the airport to the hotel.

Travellers can book two different hotels for the accommodation on day one and five. However, on both those days, they must stay within the room for the RT-PCR test result. If your stay in the country is less than five days, then prepayment for day five is not required.

At Phuket International Airport

Arriving in Phuket, we were immediately lined up as soon as we exited the aircraft as airport staff in PPE suits checked that all our documents, including the Thailand Pass, were in place. Passengers were then sent to an immigration booth while travellers who needed to pay for their visa on arrival were sent to another section, before being moved to immigration.

It's all very well-planned and smoothly executed. Once passengers have collected their baggage, there is another stop, this time to check your on-arrival PCR test receipt. Make sure to book this before you travel as the wait for payment can be long. Then, it's on to the PCR test booths, and everything is done in less than 15 minutes, before you exit the airport.

What vaccines are recognised for travel to Thailand?

Thai authorities recognise all the major Covid-19 vaccinations, in line with the latest guidelines of the government. This includes Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford-AstraZeneca, Covishield (Serum Institute of India), Johnson & Johnson, Sinovac, SK Bioscience-AstraZeneca, Moderna and Sinopharm.

Which airlines are flying from the UAE to Thailand?

Etihad Airways and Emirates are both flying to Thailand from the UAE, with a journey time of about six hours. You can fly from Abu Dhabi to Phuket with Etihad in economy class from Dh1,800 ($490).

From Dubai, Emirates fares to Phuket start from Dh1,985 in economy class. Thai Airways also operates from Bangkok to Dubai.

Updated: February 02, 2022, 12:14 PM