Phuket welcomes back tourists while other parts of Thailand face new restrictions
I recently arrived in Thailand through the nation's “Phuket Sandbox” initiative, a model that allows vaccinated international travelers to visit without having to quarantine.
Phuket is reopening just as Bangkok, and five other Thai provinces, are under coronavirus restrictions for 30 days after a surge in COVID-19 cases. Certain visitors can travel to the region again, but if you’re expecting an easy application process and seamless entry once on the ground, you may want to temper your expectations.
I wrote last week about Thailand’s complex application process for Sandbox travelers -- and how I didn’t even have a visa leading up to departure. Once in Thailand, as I quickly found, the entry process was just as confusing as applying for a visa back in New York.
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Arriving in Phuket through the 'Sandbox' program
After more than 26 hours of travel, my flight from Dubai touched down on a rainy afternoon.
For passengers not used to traveling during the pandemic, the sight at the Phuket airport might be unsettling (think: airport workers in hospital gowns and mandatory temperature checks).
It could be offputting, but Thailand is experiencing a worrying surge in positive cases, even as Phuket opens to vaccinated travelers. Nearly 8,000 new infections are reported a day, according to Reuters. And a handful of tourists participating in the Sandbox program have also tested positive for the virus, according to local reports.
Travelers on inbound flights waited in these (somewhat) socially distanced plastic chairs for an open station to process their health documentation. It almost felt like a pandemic-era picnic.
Helpful airport workers were on hand to ensure travelers had the correct documentation to expedite their entry into Phuket
As part of the Certificate of Entry application, travelers must download a contact tracing app, “ThailandPlus.” This app includes a QR code with your Certificate of Entry and a selfie you’re required to take. And for travelers with privacy concerns, the sheer amount of data it collects -- it asked for permission to access motion and fitness activity, for instance -- could be troubling.
Several travelers, myself included, were taken aback at learning of a second COVID-19 contact tracing app, which travelers were required to download to complete the entry process.
The second app, Morchana, serves as a contact tracing app that notifies the hotel if a guest has been near a person who tested positive. Hotels are required to scan guests' QR codes every day; travelers have to stay in their designated hotel overnight and can't stay at another hotel or residence.
And, of course, traveling during the pandemic has long meant showing more documentation than just your passport.
To enter Thailand through the Sandbox program, travelers have to provide a vaccine certificate, a Certificate of Entry, a negative RT-PCR test result taken before departure and insurance covering a minimum of $100,000 of medical costs, among other forms. My documents were checked and rechecked during my travel journey from New York to Dubai and Phuket.
After having my documents checked by Department of Disease Control workers, things started to more closely resemble a normal entry process.
I had my passport checked for free pages and received a friendly “Welcome to Thailand” stamp. There were stands to purchase SIM cards (travelers need to have a working internet connection for contact tracing) and exchange money.
But before leaving the airport, I was asked to take another COVID-19 test -- a very thorough nasal swab that made my eyes water. With testing complete, I caught a ride to the hotel.
Sandbox travelers have to go directly to their hotel and aren’t permitted to stop en route. Travelers are required to quarantine in their hotel rooms -- all Sandbox travelers have to stay at a “SHA+ (Safety and Health Administration Plus)” approved property -- while they wait for their airport test results. Airport workers inform the hotel of a guest's testing status, and travelers who test negative can move about the island freely.
An additional COVID-19 test has to be taken at the hotel a few days into the stay — at the expense of the traveler.
Yet even with the restrictions and confusing entry process, my stay hasn't felt like a “prison vacation.”
Thailand is heavily invested in the Sandbox initiative: The first group of tourists to land in Phuket through the program were even met with a “water tunnel” to mark the occasion.
Thai officials also hope the program will provide a successful blueprint to reopen other popular tourist hot spots on Oct. 1, the target date set by Thailand officials.
The program has the potential for success -- even with its restrictions -- but it has kinks to iron out at nearly every point of the process.
Travelers looking for a seamless pandemic getaway (if such a thing exists) might find Thailand’s Sandbox application and requirements a bit daunting. If Thailand wants the program to succeed, it may need to simplify or better explain the Phuket Sandbox program.