Thailand's tourism ministry is looking towards October as an international tourism restart date through a new program called "Safe and Sealed". The pilot program will allow tourists from low-risk countries to visit designated areas, provided they're willing to spend a number of weeks in the country.

Thailand’s tourism industry is massive. The country hosted more than 39 million international visitors in 2019, who contributed approximately US$62 billion to the country’s economy – but as the COVID-19 pandemic halted tourism, the industry has suffered. Tour guides, hoteliers and restaurateurs – not to mention street vendors, mahouts and tuk-tuk drivers – are keen to get back into the swing of things, but the military-led government is staying cautious. Just last month the government had said international tourism isn't likely to return until 2021 but now an October start date is being considered.

According to Reuters, Thailand's Minister of Tourism Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn said he's keen to open the popular holiday island of Phuket to international tourists through the Safe and Sealed program. If approved, the program will allow a small number of visitors from low-risk countries to enter Thailand and quarantine at designated hotels and resorts on Phuket for 14 days. Special quarantine zones could be set up at beaches near the designated hotels to allow tourists to have some down time during that period.

Travelers would need to get tested for COVID-19 at the beginning and end of quarantine, CNN reports. Once they have the all clear, they're free to travel the island but if they want to travel beyond Phuket, they'll be subject to more screening and quarantine periods. If successful, the program could be rolled out across other islands in Thailand.

Sino-Portuguese style houses in the old town of Phuket Is a favorite of tourists in Phuket, Thailand.
Phuket is a popular island with backpackers and holidaymakers ©Loveseen/Shutterstock

The proposal comes as the much-touted but yet-undefined “travel bubble,” a virtual international zone within which tourists and those wishing to do business can travel bureaucracy-free, was scrapped. According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), “One of the key factors of uncertainty is that the situation could change rapidly in each of those source markets in the event of a ‘second wave.’ ” Officials don't want to take the gamble. This is why Phuket is being considered for the Safe and Sealed program, coronavirus number there have been relatively low compared to elsewhere in the kingdom.

As of July 1, the ban on commercial international flights to/from Thailand has been lifted, but the list of people who are allowed to enter the country is short. According to the entity established to deal with the pandemic and the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand, the non-Thais now allowed to enter the country from July 1 include students, work permit holders, some medical tourists and those married to Thais, among others.

Patong Beach, Phuket Island, Thailand
Special quarantine zones could be set up at Patong Beach ©John_Walker/Getty Images

When international tourists are finally able to enter Thailand, they’ll most likely be subject to the same Emergency Decree rules and pandemic protocols that have been in place for months. These include mandatory temperature checks at venues like restaurants and shopping centers, social distancing protocols at shops, restaurants and street stalls, and recommended check-in with ThaiChana, a COVID-19 tracing app.

Not surprisingly, these rules extend to Thailand’s legendary nightlife. The country’s bars, karaoke outlets and massage parlours have been allowed to reopen, but are required to cap small groups at five people, and “gathering, shouting, wandering around the premises,” among other activities, are prohibited.

This article was first published on July 2 and updated on August 25, 2020.

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This article was first published May 2020 and updated August 2020

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