Fragomen professionals Kenneth Lau, Corrine Tan, and Yvonne Lee discuss Thailand’s “Phuket Sandbox” which was implemented on 1 July 2021 and designed to allow Thais and foreign nationals the opportunity to travel into Phuket.

It has been almost three years since we held our office team-building retreat at the tourist mecca of Phuket, Thailand. We can still recall the crowded beaches and the throngs of foreign tourists at the airport. What a difference a few years (and a global pandemic) can make! 

From the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Thailand quickly closed its borders and shut down travel into and out of the country. Since March 2020, Thailand’s State of Emergency (SOE) has been extended numerous times, typically on a month-to-month basis. Although the SOE is not directly tied to entry and travel bans, it has been a good indicator as to the country’s plans to reopen. Given the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in Thailand (the country is currently undergoing its fourth wave, which began in April), it is likely that the current SOE, which is in place until 31 July 2021, will again be extended.

With that in mind, it would seem quite surprising, that in the midst of this newest wave, Thailand has still pushed ahead with its “Phuket Sandbox” experiment. 

What is the Phuket Sandbox?

Thailand’s government (especially its Tourism Ministry) had already been looking at ways to bring back foreign tourists, even in the midst of the pandemic, given the importance of tourism to Thailand’s economy. We saw this with the introduction in October 2020 of the Special Tourist Visa (STV), which is scheduled to come to an end as of 30 September 2021. Under that scheme, long-stay tourists can apply to enter Thailand for an initial period of 90 days, which can then be extended twice (for a total maximum tourist stay of 270 days). However, under that scheme, such foreign nationals would still be subject to the prevailing quarantine requirements.

The Phuket Sandbox, effective as of 1 July 2021, is designed to allow Thais and foreign nationals to travel into Phuket specifically. To be eligible, foreign nationals must meet the following conditions:

  • They must avoid at-risk areas or crowded places for no less than 14 days prior to their travel date
  • They must be entering from a country or region that is designated as a low- to medium-risk for COVID-19. They must have resided in that country for at least 21 days prior to travel to Phuket
  • Travellers must be fully vaccinated and comply with all of the prevailing processes for entering Thailand, including:
    • A vaccine certificate, proving full vaccination against COVID-19, issued no less than 14 days before but no later than one year from the date of travel. The vaccine must be registered with the Thai Ministry of Public Health or approved by the WHO. Children under 18 years of age do not need to be vaccinated, but must travel with parents or guardians who have been vaccinated
    • A valid visa
    • A Certificate of Entry (COE), issued by the Royal Thai Embassy or Consulate
    • A COVID-19 health insurance policy, with a minimum coverage of USD 100,000 per traveller
    • A medical certificate with a negative RT-PCR COVID-19 result, issued no more than 72 hours before departure
    • A confirmation of booking (and receipt) for at least 14 nights at an Amazing Thailand Safety and Health Administration (SHA) Plus-certified accommodation in Phuket. If the length of stay is less than 14 nights, then the traveller must present a confirmed flight ticket out of Phuket
    • A receipt of advanced payment for COVID-19 testing in Phuket
  • The traveller will also need to undergo an exit screening before departure

Upon arrival in Phuket, the individual will need to undergo the prevailing Immigration and Customs procedures, including a COVID-19 screening with a RT-PCR test. Note that if the traveller transits at another airport in Thailand (before going on to Phuket), they are subject to health screening, immigration and customs procedures at all of the Thai airports. The traveller will also need to download and install the ThailandPlus application and MorChana tracing application. 

After landing and clearing immigration and customs, the traveller should proceed directly to their reserved hotel to check in. They will then need to ensure that they undergo the following COVID-19 tests during their stay (at their own expense):

  • Upon arrival (and awaiting the test results in their accommodation)
  • On day 6 or 7
  • On day 12 or 13

For any traveller who tests positive for COVID-19, they will be referred to specific healthcare facilities for medical treatment, for which the expenses must be covered by the required insurance.

If they test negative, then the travellers can travel anywhere in Phuket but are required to return to their specified hotel each night. They must also continue to adhere to the required and prevailing safe distancing measures during their stay. 

Can the Phuket Sandbox be used as a stepping stone to the rest of Thailand?

Given the opening of the Phuket Sandbox, it may also be tempting to look at Phuket as a stepping stone to Bangkok (or other destinations in Thailand). As it is a possible option to avoid quarantine, it can look quite attractive to employers trying to get their foreign national employees into the country in the first instance (and of course attractive to the foreign national as well). If a traveller is availing of the Phuket Sandbox to eventually transit to other parts of Thailand, they must have remained in Phuket for at least 14 days before doing so. They are also required to again show their vaccine certificate, a medical certificate showing a negative COVID-19 test (during their stay in Phuket), and a valid visa at the Phuket Airport. 

Can this be a model for the rest of the region?

Thailand is not unlike several of the other countries within the region, which initially saw relative success in containing the pandemic within its borders, but which are now seeing dramatic new waves of COVID-19 infection. Furthermore, like other similarly-situated countries in the region, Thailand has also struggled with getting its vaccination drive off the ground, having only rolled out their mass vaccination campaign in June. As of early July, only about 12.2% of the population has received a first vaccine dose and only 4.5% have been fully vaccinated.

By contrast, just prior to the opening of the Phuket Sandbox, Phuket had vaccinated more than 75% of its population. There are also plans to open up Koh Samui to a similar scheme on 15 July, with Krabi and Phang Nga opening in August. The Phuket Sandbox may offer a glimpse into how other countries in the region may start to open up further to foreign visitors, where a certain location that is more fully vaccinated can act as a gateway to the rest of the country—almost akin to a “bubble within a bubble.” Indeed, the duration of time that the traveller must spend in Phuket (14 nights) is similar to the amount of time one would need to spend in a quarantine hotel if travelling directly to Bangkok at the moment, so why not spend it walking around somewhat freely in Phuket?

What’s next?

As with most such schemes that have been trialled during the pandemic, the Phuket Sandbox is subject to a reduction in the number of travellers or even being revoked if the number of COVID-19 cases in Phuket reaches more than 90 cases within a week or if there are more than three clusters or a surge of COVID-19 cases in multiple areas.

Indeed, time will tell if the Phuket Sandbox will be a precursor for the eventual reopening of the entire country, with the government planning to reopen the nation more widely in October 2021. It is probably still premature to come to a judgment on the Phuket Sandbox (in fact, on 7 July 2021, Phuket reported its first COVID-19 case from an overseas visitor since reopening), but it will be fascinating to see how successful it will be, and whether that can be translated to other regions and countries as well.

Need to know more? 

For further information on the Phuket Sandbox please contact Kenneth Lau at [email protected], Corrine Tan at [email protected] or Yvonne Lee at [email protected].

This blog was published on 13 July 2021 and due to the circumstances, there are frequent changes. To keep up to date with all the latest updates on global immigration, please visit our dedicated COVID-19 site, subscribe to our alerts and follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.