Thailand is welcoming vaccinated holidaymakers back to its sunshine islands. But what can they expect when they arrive?
Phuket is open for business, but after a two-year closure, how is it looking?
Honeycomb sands, gently swaying palms and the gelato-hues of the Andaman Sea lapping the shore. At just a couple of hours flight from Hong Kong and Singapore, Phuket Island has always been a favourite destination amongst Asia’s city-based families.
And following a fifteen month pandemic-induced closure, it’s now back welcoming sun seeking holidaymakers.
Initially, a ‘Sandbox’ programme launched in July, aimed at fully vaccinated travellers. By mid-August, more than 19,000 international holidaymakers had arrived on Phuket Island, with just 52 positive cases of Covid-19 detected by a PCR test.
This was Thailand’s - and indeed Asia’s - first holiday destination to welcome back tourists without requiring hotel quarantine. The Phuket Sandbox relied on herd immunity (70%) levels of vaccination amongst island residents to create a ‘bubble’.
However, this has now been superseded by a full reopening of the country at the beginning of this month. From November 1, Thailand began allowing fully vaccinated holidaymakers to arrive quarantine-free throughout the country from 63 ‘low-risk’ nations, including Singapore and Hong Kong as well as the United Kingdom and the United States.
So what can visitors expect given that Phuket has essentially been shut-off to tourists since early 2020?
In many ways, and if you can bear the paperwork, it’s perhaps the perfect time to come.
After an almost two-year hiatus, the once-bustling island is now something of a tourist-free idyll. At dive sites that once welcomed 100 plus divers you’ll find yourself alone. Beaches once covered in holidaymakers are empty enough to have welcomed back breeding turtles. Waters are crystal clear and rubbish-free. Locals, while always friendly, have now been starved of business for so long they hold their arms wide open to visitors.
Thailand usually welcomes around 40 million visitors a year. In 2020, that figure plummeted by 80%.
Brett Wilson, general manager of Pullman Phuket Arcadia Naithon Beach Hotel, admits it was a tough time without international travellers, who make up the majority of business.
“When operations were suspended, it gave us the chance to spruce up the resort and complete some maintenance projects,” he said. “We refurbished the swimming pools, installed new air conditioning and further developed the landscaping. The ‘We Travel Together’ scheme funded up to 40% of domestic stays for Thai nationals and we saw greater demand from the domestic market. However, it’s been very tough without the overseas visitors.”
A tantalisingly refreshed pool awaits at Pullman Phuket Arcadia Naithon Beach Hotel.
Phuket’s longest running dive company, Sea Bees Diving, spent the pandemic revamping its dive offerings. Its liveaboard boat, MV Marco Polo, was completely renovated in anticipation of a change in guest demographics.
“The reefs are teeming with fish and Thailand’s National Parks have been taking the shutdown very seriously to enhance the balance of ecosystems,” said Holger Schwab, managing director of Sea Bees Diving. “As we approach a high tourist season, it will be a slimmer version of what it once was, the numbers of visitors will be a fraction of what they were pre-pandemic.”
According to Schwab, the visitor demographic is becoming more mature and with more disposable income to enjoy life experiences like diving. Revamped accommodation on board MV Marco Polo includes air-conditioned double cabins with rain showers and ensuite bathrooms. Fewer guests will also allow for a more relaxed and individualised dive itinerary.
Sea Bees Diving is expecting a 'slimmed down' high season.
Patrick Gauthier, regional director of Sales and Marketing Asia Pacific at international hospitality group Aman, agrees, adding that there are further challenges ahead despite the reopening.
“While international travellers can be welcomed back without quarantine, many remain restricted on return to their home countries. Because of this we expect the number of travellers visiting Phuket to remain significantly below that of 2019.” Hong Kong notably retains either a two-week or three-week hotel quarantine for all returning citizens (with some exceptions for mainland China) and Singapore has yet to arrange a Vaccinated Travel Lane with Thailand.
In 2019, Phuket welcomed more than ten million visitors, generating around US$13 billion in tourist revenue, or around 90% of gross domestic product. While the numbers initially generated by the Sandbox were a mere trickle compared to pre-pandemic times, it was at least a starting point.
High season in Phuket, which runs from December to March, and the Thai government is keen to catch the valuable Christmas and New Year tourist market.
Wakeboarding at Amanpuri.
Back in July, Wilson expected demand to build slowly, with flight connectivity increasing as the year progressed. “We can see there is pent-up demand for people to get back to travel… but we don’t expect to see very high demand until November onwards, which is generally considered to be the high season in Phuket.” he said.
Both Pullman and Aman have reopened their properties with full operations. Both properties are pivoting towards wellness-style breaks which it’s believed will build in popularity post-pandemic.
“We’ve noticed a growing global interest in achieving optimal health - wellbeing is at the forefront of conversations,” said Gauthier. “With this in mind, we’ll continue to offer carefully curated multi-day wellness immersions at our Wellness Centre to allow guests to recalibrate physically, mentally and emotionally. New for this year, Aman has curated a series of Extreme Sports Retreats across the globe that draw on the dramatic landscapes that surround each resort.”
Aman’s Phuket-based property, Amanpuri, offered a five-night Laguna Phuket Triathlon Retreat in November ahead of Asia’s longest running triathlon.
As one of the first destinations in Asia to reopen quarantine-free, Phuket was bound to experience teething issues.
“It was inevitable that there was going to be some back and forth to ensure the right measures are in place to protect all guests and residents. Some might have found this frustrating, but I believe this consultation process was the right thing to do. Most of us consider the Sandbox was a successful initiative and kudos to Thailand for taking the lead.”
With the situation ever-evolving and rising cases in Europe it’s hard to say how things will move forward, but for Amanpuri the programme has meant they have been able to finally welcome international guests back. "We’re confident that this will progressively continue as international travel moves towards a new normal,” said Gauthier.
Hitting the Andaman Sea at Amanpuri.
Along with wellness, Gauthier also has his sights set on holidaying families and the resort is offering a Family Escape package until December. Guests can enjoy daily family wellness classes such as yoga, pilates or Muay Thai boxing and kids get complimentary access to the Eco-Beach centre for science and nature activities. There are also family cooking classes and ‘Kanom Kork’ - Thai-style afternoon tea - by the pool.
Hotels on Phuket are endeavouring to make the arrivals process as smooth as possible for visitors, despite myriad requirements. Guests who book with Pullman Phuket Arcadia Naithon Beach receive pre-arrival information clearly explaining the protocols for testing and all other key details. All Covid testing is carried out offsite at government-approved locations throughout the island. The hotel can arrange transport, and an accompanying staff member if required, to ensure everything runs as smoothly as possible.
“Tourism is the lifeblood of Thailand and Phuket,” said Wilson. “The people of Phuket are very keen to see the return of travel. There’s a positive change in the energy of Phuket residents as they anticipate a return to some sort of new normality. The beaches have never looked better. The water is sparkling. The locals are waiting with open arms, with that famous Thailand smile. I would say to anyone considering a trip here - there has never been a better time.”
This article first appeared in the Autumn 2021 issue of Asia Family Traveller magazine. It has since been edited in-line with evolving pandemic travel guidelines.