BANGKOK -- Seven international airlines will operate direct flights to Phuket in southern Thailand, starting in July, bringing foreign tourists to the resort island, with the Thai government accepting visitors vaccinated for COVID-19 without quarantines.
Thai Airways International will focus on welcoming vacationers from five European cities. Flights from Paris; Frankfurt, Germany; and Copenhagen to Phuket will begin July 2, according to the national flag carrier's chief commercial officer, Nond Kalinta. Flights from London and Zurich will resume the next day.
British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways, Emirates, and Israel's El Al will operate flights to Phuket beginning in July, according to Yuthasak Supasorn, governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
Thailand is set to conduct a "sandbox experiment" from July 1, using Phuket as a testing ground to welcome vaccinated foreign visitors. Tourists with proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test result can start their vacations immediately without sealing themselves in a hotel room, as visitors to other parts of Thailand are required to do.
Travelers must be fully vaccinated for at least 14 days before departure and show a negative test result within 72 hours of boarding their flight. If a mandatory test on the fifth day of their stay is negative, they will be allowed to take a day trip off the island.
The experiment's success is crucial for Thailand, as it will demonstrate the ability of Southeast Asia's second-largest economy to balance public health and fostering economic recovery.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand is forecasting the arrival of 129,000 foreign visitors in the first three months of the experiment. If the program goes smoothly, vaccinated tourists will be allowed to travel to places such as Bangkok, Pattaya and Chiang Mai, starting in October, and throughout the country in 2022.
A lack of tourists was the main reason the Thai economy shrank 6.1% in 2020. Tourism and related businesses accounted for a fifth of Thailand's gross domestic product in pre-COVID times. The Thai tourism industry has high hopes that the experiment will help revive the sector.
Representatives of several travel agencies in Thailand told Nikkei Asia that the pilot program is drawing strong interest from European travelers, many of whom typically spend weeks during the summer in tropical resorts.
Many in the industry had feared that the experiment could be postponed due to a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic that the kingdom has been battling since March. Over 2,000 cases a day have been reported since mid-May. However, on Tuesday, the cabinet gave a provisional green light to begin the reopening program in July, suggesting that the current level of local infections will not stop the government from conducting the experiment.
About 400,000 people, more than 60% of Phuket's residents, have been vaccinated for the coronavirus, according to Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand expects Singapore Airlines, Hong Kong Airlines, Taiwan's EVA Air, Korean Air, its budget subsidiary Jin Air and French-Dutch carrier KLM to join the seven participating airlines soon.
It is imperative for airlines to attract a strong flow of foreign tourists to Phuket to maintain their routes profitably. This is especially true for cash-strapped companies like Thai Airways, which is currently under court-supervised rehabilitation. Thailand's Central Bankruptcy Court is scheduled to vote on June 15 on whether to approve a rehabilitation plan submitted by the airline.