The first group of foreign tourists arriving in Phuket under the sandbox tourism programme was satisfied with their travel experience after arriving on the island, according to the local tourism office.
Nanthasiri Ronsiri, director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s Phuket office, said Israeli tourists who arrived on Thursday during the first day of reopening visited the island’s Old Town and were impressed by the locals and the local food.
Ms Nanthasiri said the group, comprised of individual tourists, tour groups and members of the press from Israel, would spend a week in Phuket and visit various islands and local communities.
Somyot Pathan, a community leader in Phuket’s Old Town, said the tourists brought joy to local residents, as he praised the tourists for fully complying with social-distancing measures.
Mr Somyot said the next group to visit the Old Town is tourists from Dubai who are scheduled to visit this coming Thursday.
According to Ms Nanthasiri, Phuket expects to welcome 2,435 tourists on Saturday.
A total of 326 passengers on four flights from Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Singapore landed on Thursday, the first day of the reopening. About 500 were expected to arrive on Friday.
The Phuket Sandbox programme is part of the government’s plan to reopen the kingdom to foreign tourists without the need for quarantine upon arrival.
Under the scheme, vaccinated foreign visitors are required to stay in Phuket for 14 days before travelling to other provinces.
Tourists swam in hotel pools and walked along Phuket’s postcard-perfect beaches after receiving a Covid-19 test result within 24 hours of arrival.
“This is the perfect place to just relax and clean our minds, our heads, after a long time,” said Sigal Baram, lying by the pool, who was visiting from Israel with her husband and friends. The group was among the first to arrive in the country.
The ‘Phuket Sandbox’ initiative allows free movement on the island for fully vaccinated tourists, with no quarantine required, although masks are required in most public places.
While five-star hotels and restaurants welcomed back tourists, local street vendors said they were not benefiting from the plan, because tourists frequent mostly large hotels.
“There is no way street vendors will get the money from overseas tourists… it will go to hotels and restaurants instead,” said Yupin Papor, a massage therapist who lost her job during the pandemic and became a street vendor selling food on the beach.
Thailand lost about 160 billion bahtin tourism revenue last year, when foreign arrivals plunged 83%.
Phuket was hit particularly hard by job losses and business closures.
“I see the shops closed. It’s a big difference to me from before,” said Omar Alraeesi from United Arab Emirates, who comes to Phuket every year.
Millions of people visited Phuket every year before the pandemic and the government and tourism industry hope the reopening will help save its battered economy.