Thailand Tourism: Phuket Reopening Offers Model for Asia as Travel Bubbles Burst

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Thailand’s plan to reopen the tourist haven of Phuket could become a model for other vacation hotspots in Asia to prise open their borders and bring in visitors as strategies such as travel bubbles falter, according to the founder of Banyan Tree Holdings Ltd.

Tourism-reliant Thailand aims to allow quarantine-free travel to its prime destination from July 1 for the first time in more than a year, provided visitors are inoculated against Covid-19 and aren’t coming from high-risk countries.

The so-called Phuket Sandbox plan is dependent on the vaccination rate among the island’s residents hitting at least 70%. It currently stands at about 60%, far higher than the 5% nationwide, after a concerted push to get locals vaccinated.

“Every government is beginning to feel around on how to open up, and the Phuket Sandbox is really a viable way now because even the travel bubbles that people talked about didn’t take place,” Banyan Tree Executive Chairman Ho Kwon Ping said in an interview Monday. “It’s the first time anywhere east of the Maldives that you have a country with this population size with such a low vaccination rate actually opening up to the rest of the world.”

Low Infections

Phuket’s Covid-19 outbreak has eased since its peak in April

Sources: Center for Covid-19 Situation Administration, Bloomberg


Asia has been slow to reopen due to sluggish vaccine rollouts. Many countries also still only allow residents to enter and enforce strict lockdowns in a bid to keep Covid cases at or close to zero. Hong Kong and Singapore have been trying to open a quarantine-free travel corridor for months, but outbreaks have so far scuppered plans.

Meanwhile, European countries such as France and Spain are loosening restrictions faster and allowing vaccinated visitors from places as far away as New Zealand to enter without quarantine. Even if Phuket Sandbox goes ahead, travelers may have to quarantine when they return to their home countries.

Still, Ho welcomes the plan, saying islands are the best place to start as they are more isolated. “You can control it,” he said. “If you have an infection rate going up, you clamp down, you protect the rest of the country.”

Ho also said it was encouraging to see Thailand taking the initiative rather than waiting for international agreements on vaccine passports showing whether travelers have been inoculated. The U.S., for example, has ruled them out due to privacy concerns.

Key Speakers At The Singapore Summit

Photographer: Paul Miller/Bloomberg

Vaccination remains key. With its higher rate of inoculations, Phuket reported only six new cases over the past week, with some days of no local infections at all. For Thailand as a whole, new virus cases are averaging 2,790 a day, about a third of which are in the capital Bangkok. Under the reopening plan, vaccinated tourists can stay in Phuket for any period of time and travel to other parts of Thailand after 14 days on the island.

“The Sandbox is much more than just for Phuket or Thailand. It sets a possible way forward for other Asian countries,” said Ho, who founded a leisure and property empire of 48 hotels and resorts in more than a dozen countries. In addition to the Indonesian island of Bali, he said the plan could be followed by China’s Hainan province and Phu Quoc in southern Vietnam, which are also islands.

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