Thailand has surged ahead with its plans to restart tourism after deeming a pilot programme in Phuket to be a success.
One of the world’s most-visited countries pre-pandemic, Thailand remains largely closed to tourists, but vaccinated holidaymakers from overseas are now able to travel to three islands in the Surat Thani province, namely Koh Samui, Koh Tao and Koh Phangan.
The move follows the reopening of Phuket, Thailand’s largest island, on Thursday, July 1.
It also comes at a time when Thailand is battling a rising number of Covid-19 cases.
What’s the Covid-19 situation like in Thailand?
In short, not great. Cases have skyrocketed in Thailand recently, signalling trouble for the country’s reopening strategy.
Bangkok has gone into lockdown, with the capital's 10 million plus population now under a curfew.
Cases of Covid-19 are at an all-time high in Thailand, and a surge in both Alpha and Delta variants has been reported by local media.
To date, Thailand has recorded 391,989 cases and 3,240 deaths according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The majority of these numbers stem from the latest wave of infections, which started in April.
Despite this, the country moved ahead with plans to reopen more islands to tourists from July 15.
Which Thai islands are open to tourists?
In addition to the Sandbox programme in Phuket, three islands in the Surat Thani Province are now also open to travellers with the Tourism Authority of Thailand expecting about 1,000 foreign tourists to arrive in the region between its July 15 reopening date and Sunday, August 15.
One of Thailand’s most famous islands, Koh Samui is known for its palm-tree lined beaches, pristine waters and bustling nightlife. In any other year, the island would be thronging with tourists at this time. Appealing to the masses with everything from luxury five-star resorts to budget backpacker hostels, a visit now might be one of the only times you can go to see the island without the crowds it has become known for.
Beaches on Koh Samui are aplenty, as are waterfalls and Buddha statues, the most famous being the island’s Big Buddha.
Only accessible by boat, Koh Tao is the smallest and quietest of the newly reopened islands and has been a favourite with scuba divers for decades, thanks to cheap instruction and equipment hire, coupled with incredible marine life.
The island has plenty to offer above the water, too. Its volcanic rock surface is home to several climbing routes, providing hikes with abseiling, bouldering and amazing viewpoints, not to mention pristine beaches and lush green jungles.
Thailand’s fifth-largest island, Koh Phanghan, is only 12 kilometres from Koh Samui and is best-known for being home to the original Full Moon Party, an all-night beach shindig that has been running for nearly four decades.
It also boasts beautiful bays, mountainous jungle with waterfalls and mountain pools, as well as plenty of yoga and nature resorts for those seeking to get away from it all.
What are the new rules to visit the islands?
Under the Samui Plus rules, a mandatory two-week quarantine for inoculated visitors is now waived so long as tourists can meet certain requirements.
“The reopening of Samui, Koh Phangan, and Koh Tao to tourism is another significant step towards achieving the Thai prime minister’s recently announced policy of reopening the whole country within 120 days, or by the end of October," said Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn, Minister of Tourism and Sports.
If you’re planning a visit to one of the islands, here’s what you need to take note of:
· Tourists must have a passport with at least six months validity.
· Travellers need to have been in an approved country for 21 days or more – the UAE is on the approved list of destinations which can be seen here.
· All overseas visitors must be fully vaccinated with a jab approved by Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health or the World Health Organisation. This includes the Sinopharm vaccine.
· Proof of return air travel may be provided.
· Overseas visitors need to book to stay in a Samui Extra Plus hotel for the first seven days of any trip, and at an SHA Plus hotel for any remaining days. You can find information on which hotels are approved via the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s website.
· Accommodation must be booked and paid for in advance and all required PCR tests must also be prepaid.
· All tourists need to have travel insurance with Covid-19 treatment coverage of at least US$100,000
· Travellers need to apply to visit to Thailand and can do so online here. If applications are approved, travellers will be notified.
PCR testing in Thailand
All visitors from overseas must have tested negative for Covid-19 no longer than 72 hours before travel.
Once in the country, further testing is required, with tourists having to undergo a test on arrival at their own expense. They must then isolate in their hotel until the result is ready, typically for a period of one day.
Further PCR tests will be required. Those staying less than seven days must take a test on day six, and visitors staying 10 to 14 days must also take a test on day 12. If travellers are staying less than five days in the country, no additional PCR test is needed.
For the first three days of all trips, travellers must stay inside their initial hotel but can use the facilities such as pools and beaches so long a negative result has been received.
On day four, tourists can travel within designated routes and on tour programmes on Koh Samui island only.
From days eight to 14, tourists can travel within Koh Samui, Ko Phangan and Koh Tao. By day 15, if the final PCR test taken on day 12 is negative, tourists can travel anywhere in the country.
The Samui Plus programme is set be in operation for travel to the province between July and December.
How can I get to the islands?
Travellers can fly to Koh Samui on a direct international flight or an international flight via Bangkok, and connect on approved sealed flights to the islands, which are operated via Bangkok Airways.
Tickets must be issued on the same booking. Both Emirates and Etihad Airways operate from the UAE to Bangkok.
When will the rest of Thailand reopen to international tourists?
The next Thai destinations to reopen to visitors are set to be Krabi, Chiang Mai, Chon Buri, Buriram Phang Nga, with reopening scheduled for Wednesday, September 1.
Bangkok and Hua Hin are scheduled for a Friday, October 1 opening, with the rest of the country set to reopen gradually through the remainder of the month.