Phuket is gearing up to receive its first group of tourists from China who are expected to arrive next week under the Special Tourist Visa (STV) scheme aimed at supporting Thailand's economic recovery.
In the initial stage of reopening, the first flight, scheduled to land on Oct 8, is expected to carry 120 tourists from Guangzhou.
The visitors will stay in alternative state quarantine for 14 days as part of disease control measures.
Phuket governor Narong Woonsiew said on Tuesday that all authorities concerned are ready to welcome the visitors with Covid-19 labs, supplied by the Department of Communicable Disease Control, now installed at Phuket airport. He said agencies concerned will meet today to rehearse all the procedures, including the screening and testing of tourists.
Thanit Sermkaew, chief of the provincial health officials, said the public health system is ready with 1,222 rooms from nine hotels having passed inspection and selected as alternative state quarantine venues.
A total of 73 hotels with more than 5,800 rooms have applied to be considered as alternative quarantine facilities, he said.
Mr Thanit said about 5,000 rooms would then be needed to accommodate the tourists under the STV scheme, in which the number of tourists is limited at 100 per flight, with no more than three flights per week, he said.
Based on the province's Covid-19 screening process, the Foreign Ministry and airlines are required to provide information about the visitors before their arrival, he said.
Passengers who do not pass health screening and are classified as Patients under Investigation (PUI) will be referred to designated hospitals. Those who are clear to enter alternative quarantine facilities will be directly transported to the venues after immigration procedures. Visitors will also be tested in quarantine.
Gen Natthapon Nakpanich, head of the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration's (CCSA) panel on the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, said on Tuesday the STV scheme will first be introduced on the resort islands of Phuket and Samui.
He said the first group of foreign arrivals is considered a low-risk group because there have been no new Covid-19 cases in Guangzhou for an extended period.
Gen Natthapon said the number of tourists will be limited to 300 per week during the first phase and the scheme will be assessed to see if numbers can be increased.
He insisted that for the time being, all visitors are required to be quarantined for two weeks, while a proposal about a shortened quarantine is still being proposed.
Dr Thiravat Hemachudha, head of the Thai Red Cross Emerging Infectious Disease Health Science Centre on Tuesday welcomed the idea to reduce the quarantine period from 14 days to seven days.
He said Covid-19 infected people are likely to show symptoms within the first seven days.
"We can study this with foreign visitors who will arrive next month. During the 14-day quarantine they will be tested on the first, the seventh and the fourteenth day. If they are free of infections, we can shorten the quarantine to seven days," he said.
He said the quarantine measure is a safe bet against some Covid-19 patients whose result comes back negative in their first test.
If the second test still comes back negative, the chance of infection is extremely low, he said.
Dr Thiravat said the Thai Red Cross Society has the capacity to conduct 5,000 Covid-19 finger-prick tests per day and can boost the capacity to 10,000 tests per day.
He said while reopening the country to foreign travellers can help stimulate the economy, it is important to screen visitors and make sure that they are from low-risk countries as Thailand can choose which countries to welcome them from.
Dr Thiravat also stressed that money from tourists should go to local communities.
Meanwhile, the CCSA on Tuesday reported 14 new Covid-19 cases including seven Thai soldiers who returned last week from their UN peacekeeping deployment to South Sudan.
They were on the same chartered flight which brought back 16 soldiers who were confirmed with the disease on Monday. The Covid-19 soldiers were sent to Phramongkutklao Hospital in Bangkok for treatment.
According to the CCSA, three of the new cases were women who returned from Hong Kong and three Indian nationals who arrived back on Sept 23.
The 14th case was a Thai woman who arrived back from Turkey on Sept 22.