Island-hopping: Exploring Thailand’s Sandbox Model – The ‘One Step at a Time’ Approach to Reopening the Country

By Tourism Authority of Thailand

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Thailand?

Is it a picturesque tropical scene of white sandy beaches and crystal-clear water under the dazzling sun? Do you imagine yourself taking a stroll along the beachline or kicking back on a hammock hanging under the coconut trees?

Thailand is truly blessed with some of the best seaside paradises of the world. The Southern islands – such as Phuket, Ko Samui, and Ko Phi Phi – have become the iconic faces of the country’s tourism and attracted holidaymakers from every corner of the world. So, when the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) launched the Phuket Sandbox initiative to rejuvenate the COVID-stricken tourism industry, local businesses and international travellers alike held their breath and cheered for its success.

The Phuket Sandbox, launched on 1 July, 2021, was the Kingdom’s first step towards reopening its border. The programme, which the aim is to relax the mandatory quarantine for international travellers, has now expanded to include several destinations in three southern provinces – Surat Thani, Phang-Nga, and Krabi – also known as the Phuket Sandbox 7+7 Extension.

For Thailand, it is a slow but measured step in the right direction which, for the past few months after its launch, has proven incredibly fruitful. For travellers, it is a chance to enjoy a highly rewarding vacation despite some hurdles, details of which we will dive into later.

Preparing for Departure

The first thing tourists need to know is that this programme is not yet open to everyone. Only fully-vaccinated travellers who depart from low-to medium-risk countries approved by the Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) are eligible to apply. They also have to prepare the following documents:

Phuket Sandbox 7+7 Extension: How Does It Work?

While overseas travellers must spend their first 14 days under state quarantine, the “Phuket Sandbox 7+7 Extension” programme significantly alleviates this rule. Travellers are only required to spend their first 7 days in Phuket, after which they can spend the next 7 days in any of the extension areas of Krabi, Phang-Nga, or Surat Thani.

For the first 7 days, travellers are required to stay in a SHA+ (SHA Plus) accredited hotel. But the good news is, they don’t have to stay cooped up in their room all the time. Tourists are allowed to visit various establishments and enjoy a number of activities that have received SHA+ standards throughout the island. Travellers can also spend time with their friends and family, granted they’re also fully vaccinated and follow the necessary procedures.

After finishing the first 7 nights, if travellers wish to move on to another designated extension area, they must obtain a ‘Transfer Form’ issued by their hotel before proceeding to their next stop with the approved modes of transportation. The current extension areas include:

While staying in the selected extension area, tourists are able to stay at more than 1 hotel as long as they are SHA+ properties. However, all of the bookings must be prepared and prepaid in advance. So, it is wise to plan the trip well.

Additionally, throughout their stay, visitors must strictly follow the DMHTTA precautions at all times: D – Distancing, M – Mask wearing, H – Handwashing, T – Temperature checking, T – Testing for COVID-19, and A – alert application.

Island-hopping

While the arrangements can be a little perplexing, these measures give tourists a lot more freedom, and the trip feels much more like a true vacation.

Furthermore, the 1 benefit tourists can look forward to is virtually having the entire beach to themselves. With very few tourists around the islands and the nature practically untouched for nearly 2 years, the first groups of tourists are guaranteed to enjoy the idyllic scenery they might not have had a chance to see before COVID.

Before the pandemic, the famous islands of Phuket, Krabi, Phang-Nga, and Surat Thani were usually very crowded with not only tourists, but also street vendors and stray animals. Now, after some restoration efforts, the islands are able to effectively exude their own unique charm and make visitors fall in love with the tropical warmth and seaside abundance.

Phuket

There is a great reason why Phuket was handpicked as the pilot destination to welcome international travellers. The island province is home to numerous beautiful beaches, a wealth of cultural heritage, and impressive diversity. It is also one of the most developed destinations of Thailand, boasting the second highest per capita income in the country. Patong and Karon Beaches are known for its magnificence, the Old Town is historic, and the nightlife is bustling. Whatever you need for your holidays, Phuket can deliver.

Krabi

One cannot simply love beaches and have never heard of Ko Phi Phi. The archipelago is among the top 10 most beautiful beaches in the world. Ao Thon Sai and Ao Lo Dalam, in particular, are to die for. Ko Ngai, on the other hand, is a great place for snorkelling as it has a variety of coral reefs which attract colorful fish. But if you’re looking for on land adventures, rock climbing and abseiling are popular sports at Railay Beach where you can get some sweat while still enjoying the stunning coastlines.

Phang-Nga

Compared to the liveliness of Phuket or Krabi, Phang-Nga is an alternative for tourists who prefer unspoiled beaches and a peaceful atmosphere. Khao Lak, for example, defines what a beach town should be. It is family and foreigner friendly, featuring lovely beaches and spectacular underwater scenery, as well as wondrous waterfalls in the middle of its national parks. And Ko Yao is great for sightseeing and experiencing the way of life of Thai islanders who are mainly rice farmers or fishermen. It is also home to over 160 species of birds, making the island a favourite among birdwatchers.

Surat Thani

The 3 extension areas of Surat Thani are collectively called “Samui Plus.” Of the 3, Ko Samui is the biggest and the most developed, making it perfect for a family vacation. Its famous Chaweng Beach boasts long stretches of powdery white sand, while Lamai Beach is a great dining spot to enjoy seaside scenery. Ko Pha-ngan offers a more tranquil atmosphere, calming water, and bountiful nature. Meanwhile, Ko Tao is a hidden treasure trove when it comes to underwater activities. If you love snorkelling or diving, this is the 1 place you do not want to miss.

What’s next?

If the last COVID test is negative, from Day 15 onwards, tourists are free to go anywhere in the Kingdom of Thailand. Nonetheless, the rules may be adjusted depending on the situation and, it is perfectly understandable to be a bit wary when it comes to travelling during the pandemic.

Although the hurdles are high and there are a lot of complicated procedures to follow, the trip can be incredibly rewarding. And who knows, the moment you set foot in Thailand, there might be many other destinations with similar pilot programmes you can explore and turn your long-awaited tropical vacation into an unforgettable experience.


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