What a trip to Phuket looks like during the pandemic

At the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, the vegetation is so lush that the chirping of cicadas drowns out almost all human conversation. After not seeing visitors for more than a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, nature has reclaimed much of this 12-hectare piece of land, which sits on the border of Khao Phra Thaeo National Park.

It is both a blessing and a curse for the centre’s 11 main residents, who are sick, injured or elderly and have been rescued from Thailand’s logging and tourism industries. A blessing, as these giants can freely roam the sanctuary as they please and live out their final years in absolute bliss. And a curse because it is the regular visitors and donors who keep the center running, help pay for its staff and the food and medicine for the elephants, whose bills can reach thousands of baht a week.

“We used to have 20-30 people a day before Covid-19, but now it’s down to 10-15,” our guide told us as we watched Sri Nual, 44, happily chew on pineapple leaves, occasionally using its food to crush insects on its back.

It’s a similar picture to Phuket, which became Thailand’s first tourist destination to reopen its borders to international visitors on July 1 last year via the Phuket Sandbox initiative, allowing fully vaccinated tourists to enter without hindrances.

Phuket’s initiative has been hailed as a successful experiment, allowing a small number of visitors who can stay on the island for 14 days before being allowed to travel further. Even after Thailand reimposed mandatory coronavirus quarantine measures for foreign arrivals on Dec. 22 amid rising cases of the Omicron variant, the Phuket Sandbox program remained operational.

Earlier this month, authorities announced that the sandbox program would now include five more provinces – Krabi, Phang-Nga, Ko Samui, Ko Pha-ngan and Ko Tao.

As one of the country’s top tourist destinations, the province typically accounts for more than 20% of Thailand’s total tourism revenue, according to its Ministry of Tourism.

Phuket is famous for its beautiful beaches.  AFP

Witoon Chanchumrat, who runs a company that organizes experiential activities around Phuket, from yacht parties to themed parties, says things are slowly picking up since the July reopening.

“I was getting around 20 bookings a month before Covid, which dropped to just three a month after the country was closed to visitors,” says the entrepreneur, who launched his own fashion label, Toon Collections, earlier this year to help support his business.

“Now I’m starting to get inquiries again, but not bookings yet. But I’m confident they’ll be back. Things are picking up speed. We’ll be back.”

Chanchumrat’s optimism is shared by her friend, Atiporn Kongphet, who quit her graphic design career after two years to open her own bar, Beach & Bubbles, on Layan Beach last year.

“I always wanted to have my own business and the pandemic seemed like a good time,” she says. “Even when there were no tourists, locals filled our bar and supported our business.”

The Phuket Sandbox initiative was launched in July 2021. AFP

Kongphet’s bar was buzzing the afternoon we visited, with most places on the beach all spaced out according to local restrictions, filled in time for sunset.

She says she was getting around 30 to 40 customers a day before the reopening and is now serving between 50 and 100 a day.

A 20 minute drive from Beach & Bubbles in Cherngtalay is the sprawling Amanpuri. A flagship property of luxury hotel operator Aman Resorts, the 26.8-hectare resort sits on its own peninsula, offering guests ultimate privacy.

It’s a favorite of celebrities including Beyonce and Jay-Z, as well as Leonardo DiCaprio and Bill Gates, with rates ranging from $890 to $25,520 a night. Patrick Gauthier, Amanpuri’s regional sales and marketing manager for Asia Pacific, said the property has been doing roaring business since Phuket reopened.

Sureesa Jallabert, co-founder of chic brasserie Maison Napoleon in Cherngtalay, says business has been tough over the past year, but she’s also optimistic about the future.

“There have been a lot of regulations, whether it’s time limits or bans on alcoholic beverages. However, we were able to survive thanks to loyal local customers,” she says. “Now that we can see an increase in tourist numbers, we are looking forward to a new normal.

“Thailand is a beautiful country and our people are ready to welcome the world who come to visit us.”

What are the latest restrictions on travel to Thailand?

While the Phuket Sandbox, which allows visitors to move around the island while undergoing PCR tests, will remain operational, Thailand has reimposed mandatory coronavirus quarantine measures for foreign arrivals, in a bid to control the spread of the Omicron variant.

The country, which reopened to fully vaccinated travelers from more than 60 countries in November, suspended its Test and Go program for arrivals from December 22, with international visitors required to undergo a hotel quarantine for 10 days s they are vaccinated and 14 days if they are. not vaccinated.

As of January 20, the Test and Go program is back, with applications accepted from February 1. Officials added several new requirements, including proof of prepayment for two separate nights of accommodation at government-approved hotels on the first and fifth day. According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand, travelers can book two different hotels for accommodation on the first and fifth days. However, on both days they must remain in the room awaiting the results of their mandatory RT-PCR tests.

The Phuket Sandbox remains operational, however, along with five other provinces added from February 1.

What do I need before flying to Thailand?

Travelers heading to Sandbox destinations in Thailand must apply for a Thailand Pass before travelling. This will generate a QR code which will be needed to enter the country.

To obtain the pass, visitors must provide proof of vaccination and an approved hotel reservation for the first night in Thailand. Travelers must also confirm that they have booked a PCR test on arrival.

Additionally, tourists will also be required to present a negative Covid-19 test result taken no later than 72 hours prior to travel and proof of health insurance covering a minimum of $50,000.

From February 1, those traveling to the rest of Thailand can do so under the Test and Go program. Under this program, travelers must meet all pre-travel requirements similar to the Sandbox program. Additionally, they must show proof of prepayment for two separate nights of accommodation in government-approved hotels on the first and fifth days, as well as expenses for the two RT-PCR tests. Prepayment for the first day must include accommodation, test and pre-arranged transfer from airport to hotel.

Travelers can book two different hotels for accommodation on the first and fifth days. However, these two days, they need to stay in the room for the RT-PCR test result. If your stay in the country is less than five days, prepayment for the fifth day is not required.

To Phuket International Airport

A medical assistant waits to test arriving passengers at Phuket International Airport.  AFP

Arriving in Phuket we were immediately lined up as soon as we stepped off the plane as airport staff in PPE suits checked that all our documents including the Thailand Pass were in place. Passengers were then directed to an immigration booth while travelers who had to pay for their visa on arrival were sent to another section, before being transferred to immigration.

Everything is very well planned and executed smoothly. Once passengers have collected their luggage, there is another stop, this time to check your PCR test receipt on arrival. Be sure to book it before you travel as the wait for payment can be long. Then it’s off to the PCR test booths, and everything is done in less than 15 minutes, before leaving the airport.

What vaccines are recognized for traveling to Thailand?

Thai authorities recognize all major Covid-19 vaccinations, in line with the latest government guidelines. This includes Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford-AstraZeneca, Covishield (Serum Institute of India), Johnson & Johnson, Sinovac, SK Bioscience-AstraZeneca, Moderna and Sinopharm.

Which airlines fly between United Arab Emirates and Thailand?

Etihad Airways and Emirates both fly to Thailand from the United Arab Emirates, with a journey time of around six hours. You can fly from Abu Dhabi to Phuket with Etihad in economy class from Dh1,800 ($490).

From Dubai, Emirates fares to Phuket start from Dh1,985 in economy class. Thai Airways also operates from Bangkok to Dubai.

Updated: February 1, 2022, 04:12