Etihad Airways flight number EY430 landed at Phuket International Airport just after 11am (local time) on Thursday morning. The national airline of the UAE was the first commercial aircraft to touch down on the holiday island as it reopened to international visitors.
The Etihad jet was greeted with a water cannon salute, as Phuket celebrates what it hopes is the start of a new chapter for Thailand’s devastated tourism industry.
Phuket is the first region in Thailand to begin welcoming tourists again.
Opening under an initiative dubbed Phuket Sandbox, the holiday hot spot now allows fully vaccinated visitors from countries deemed low-risk to travel to the island without quarantine and for non-essential reasons.
On the first day of the programme, an estimated 250 international travellers are expected to arrive on the island, which is located off the southern coast of Thailand.
Flights from Qatar, Israel and Singapore are also scheduled to land at Phuket airport on Thursday.
The reopening of Thailand's largest island comes amid a rise in Covid-19 case numbers across the country, with many infections attributed to the Delta variant.
Despite this, case numbers in Phuket remain low. The island authorities have been working hard to vaccinate residents and 70 per cent of its population has received at least one dose of a vaccine.
Vaccinated travellers from eligible countries can now holiday in Phuket if they can provide proof of their vaccination status and a negative Covid-19 test. Tourists must also have valid insurance to cover treatment for the coronavirus if they were to contract it while in Thailand.
Covid-19 restrictions remain in place in Phuket, with all travellers having to wear face masks in public, follow social distancing rules and undergo further PCR tests at their own expense.
But, unlike the rest of the country where a 14-day hotel quarantine policy is in place, visitors to Phuket can enjoy the island’s beaches, restaurants, cafes and hotels.
Thailand’s tourism industry has been blighted by travel restrictions put in place to stem the spread of the pandemic. Phuket is one of the country's big tourism destinations, and Thailand's Ministry of Tourism and Sports says the island typically accounts for more than 20 per cent of its total tourism revenue.
Tourist numbers from March 2020 have been low across Thailand. The Associated Press reported fewer than a half a million travellers have visited Phuket this year, largely domestic tourists. That’s in comparison to the same period in 2020, when more than three million visitors flocked to the island’s beaches and resort.
The rest of Thailand remains closed to international travellers. However, if tourists spend 14 days in Phuket, they will be free to roam to other parts of the country.