The country's success in containing Covid-19 has come at a price: huge losses of income from foreign visitors. To lure overseas visitors and give the tourism industry a shot in the arm, the government introduced a special tourist visa (STV) scheme and recently approved a guideline for foreign tourists and crews of foreign super-yachts looking to dock in Thailand.
Phuket, which has been struggling to revive its pandemic-crippled tourism sector, has drawn up detailed guidelines for a limited reopening and will submit it to the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA).
If the CCSA gives it the go-ahead, the resort island looks set to welcome about 60 foreign-flagged yachts and cruise boats with hundreds of tourists ready to spend big.
However, without stringent disease control measures, the private sector is concerned these luxury vessels may head towards other destinations where Covid-19 restrictions have been eased.
Prior to entering
Pichet Panapong, deputy governor of Phuket, said the provincial committee on disease control had drafted a step-by-step approach on how to use luxury vessels as an Alternative Yacht Quarantine (AYQ) venue.
Prior to entry, yacht and cruise boat operators or owners are required to prepare travel plans, identification documents and health insurance policies which cover Covid-19 treatment and have a minimum coverage of US$100,000 (3 million baht) per person for the duration of their stay, and consent to a 14-day mandatory quarantine.
To enable Thai authorities to track their movements, the vessels must switch on their Automatic Identification System (AIS) around the clock, from their ports of origin all the way to Thailand and during the quarantine period. The crew and passengers must also apply for entry permits as per the Foreign Affairs Ministry's guidelines.
14-day quarantine aboard
Under the proposed guideline, Por Bay is designated as the sole gateway for luxury vessels seeking to dock in Phuket. The craft will be allowed to moor in an area near Koh Nakha Noi, about 6.2km from the shore.
Temperature checks must be conducted twice daily from the start of the journey, with RT-PCR testing to be done three times during quarantine.
The crew and passengers will be tested on the first day of arrival, between the second and fifth day and between the 12th and the 14th day of quarantine. No one will be allowed to disembark during the quarantine anchorage.
Delivery of supplies can be arranged to the port, while waste management will be handled by an agent authorised by contracted hospitals. When delivering supplies and/or collecting samples for testing by small boats, personnel must wear proper protective gear and the boats must be cleaned and disinfected after each journey.
"The province has approved the draft for implementation of the measures. Marine officials, public health authorities, and contracted hospitals have come together to work out these details.
"When the governor signs it off, it will be proposed to the CCSA for approval. We haven't done anything beyond the guidelines set by the CCSA," he said.
Domestic demand not enough
According to Mr Pichet, the province has yet to see more foreign visitors travelling by air despite the introduction of the STV programme in September.
He said the province is prepared to reopen to overseas visitors travelling by sea, before saying the proposed Covid-19 control measures are not a major deterrent. After completing the mandatory quarantine and testing negative for the virus, the tourists can travel within Phuket, like other tourists who arrive by air.
"We have six to seven requirements for foreign visitors and we only let a small number of them in at a time. So we need those who are significant contributors to revive the local economy. If the spending remains low it will hardly make a difference," he said.
Phuket's tourism sector has been buoyed by domestic demand, spurred by discount campaigns aimed at Thai travellers looking to spend some time away after the easing of lockdown measures.
Under the cabinet's guidelines approved late last month, foreign tourists and crew members of foreign luxury boats will be allowed to stay in the kingdom for up to 90 days. The visa is renewable twice, each time for up to 90 days.
So far, about 60 leisure vessels have shown interest in docking: 27 super-yachts and 33 cruise boats carrying between 600-700 people each.
It is estimated this group of tourists will generate about 2.1 billion baht for the local economy, authorities said.
Further easing urged
Tanyuta Singhmanee, managing director of Asia Pacific Superyachts, said that out of the 20 or so yacht operators which are looking to dock in Phuket, half are looking to move to other locations which have already eased quarantine requirements for foreign visitors, such as Singapore.
As the pandemic has taken a huge toll on yachting and other related businesses, she urged the government to further ease quarantine restrictions to attract more high-spending visitors.
"If these vessels just pass us by, the impact [on tourism] will be worse. I suggest we relax some conditions and make the rules more practical," she said.
She admitted that as the measure was novel, there will be a learning curve in which authorities will learn about the system's strengths and weaknesses.
As such, she expected Phuket authorities to adapt the rules once the first batch of vessels was allowed in.
Choenporn Kanchanasaya, chairwoman of Phuket's council of industries, said the private sector wanted foreign tourists to return, be it by air, land or sea, as they were the key drivers of the economy.
She said she was confident in the government's disease control measures and its emergency response plans in case of a resurgence of Covid-19 cases.
Health sector well equipped
Somsuk Samphanpratheep, deputy chief of the provincial public health office, said there were now 18 Alternative Local Quarantine (ALQ) facilities in the province with 1,948 rooms, as three privately-run hospitals had joined the scheme.
Some 23 hotels with 2,577 rooms are making investments to be certified as ALQs while four others with 206 rooms are being evaluated.
He said the province had been free of local infections for 171 days and the 665 Thai citizens who arrived on cargo vessels recently were quarantined and had all tested negative for Covid-19.
However, a Dutchman who arrived with his wife on Nov 1 tested positive at an ALQ facility and was sent to a hospital.
He said the patient's close contacts were required to restart their 14-day quarantine.