Roaring applause met the 23 passengers who strolled off Etihad Airways' Alight EY 430 at Phuket International Airport on July 1, 2021. They weren't rock stars or Olympic medallists returning home, they were travellers - the first international travellers to enter Thailand without quarantine since March 2020. Even Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha was on hand to welcome all four international flights that day.
The Phuket Sandbox was an experiment for vaccinated travellers. Those who test negative for Covid-19 before and after arrival can skip quarantine and freely roam Thailand's largest island. After testing negative on two more swab tests, taken over two weeks, they could also visit other parts of the country.
Graced with 70 khaki-sand beaches, emerald waters and mesmerising viewpoints, not to mention entertainment options from waterparks to art galleries, Phuket was one of Thailand's top-tier tourist destinations before the pandemic. The island drew more than nine million air arrivals in 2019, with international tourism receipts totalling THB370 billion (US$11.2 billion), along with an additional THB46 billion (US$1.38 billion) from domestic tourism, according to data from C9 Hotelworks. Heavy reliance on international tourism left Phuket in a poor position to weather a global pandemic. In mid-to-late 2020, when Thailand's Covid-19 response appeared to be among the most successful in the world, a domestic tourism stimulus programme brought little relief to Phuket. Once-bustling areas became ghost towns. Tens of thousands of jobs disappeared.
The Bank of Thailand estimated that 11 per cent of Thailand's GDP came from tourism in 2019. After losing most of that in 2020, as inbound tourist arrivals dipped to 6.7 million from an all-time high of 39.8 million in 2019, Thai authorities took action in March. Phuket, they announced, would be the venue for a pilot project to allow quarantinefree inbound tourism from the third quarter. .
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