RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Still looking for a summer vacation spot? The Thai resort island of Phuket wants you. A plan called the Phuket Sandbox opens Thursday to fully vaccinated tourists - with no quarantine. It's a first step towards jump-starting Thailand's economy.
Michael Sullivan reports.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Tourism contributes a hefty 20% of Thailand's GDP. And the island of Phuket's economy is almost all tourism-driven, which is why the past 16 months, ever since the country closed its borders, have been so brutal and why the Phuket Sandbox is being greeted so warmly.
NANTHASIRI RONNASIRI: I'm very happy - OK? - very happy.
SULLIVAN: Nanthasiri Ronnasiri heads the tourism authority of Thailand's Phuket office.
RONNASIRI: I tried to do everything - welcome the people back to Phuket, right? I want the tourists - you will stay in Phuket happy (ph).
SULLIVAN: But they'll still have to be tested three times during the first two weeks of their stay. And even though Phuket says 70% of its population is vaccinated, tourists will still have to wear masks in public. That's if they can get there at all.
BILL BARNETT: Right now people simply can't finish their documentation.
SULLIVAN: That's Bill Barnett, managing director of C9 Hotelworks, a consultancy based in Phuket. He says, the Thai government has struggled to let tourists know what paperwork they need to be allowed in.
BARNETT: There's a lot of documentation required now with certificates of reentry. I think the process is cumbersome. And they're very late. There's a lot of bureaucracy to fight your way into the Sandbox.
SULLIVAN: And there's another problem. After its early success in containing the virus, Thailand is now battling a third wave, its worst yet.
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PENSOM LERTSITHICHAI: The overall situation is still quite worrying. Today we have new confirmed cases standing at 5,406 cases.
SULLIVAN: That's yesterday's COVID briefing in the capital, Bangkok. And that's more than double the daily average just a few weeks ago. New daily infections in Phuket, though, have been in the single digits for most of the month. But even with a 70% vaccination rate in Phuket, the third wave and the Sandbox have some worried.
THIRAVAT HEMACHUDHA: (Speaking Thai).
SULLIVAN: Dr. Thiravat Hemachudha of Chulalongkorn University says, "Even fully vaccinated tourists can still bring infections in with them." He's especially worried about the highly contagious Delta variant. Phuket's vaccination program has relied mostly on the Chinese Sinovac vaccine. And he has doubts about its efficacy against the Delta variant in particular.
But Bill Barnett of C9 Hotelworks is cautiously optimistic.
BARNETT: The Sandbox isn't a means to an end. The Sandbox is a proof of concept. But I mean, can it work? I think the messaging is we're going to have to live - we're going to learn to live with COVID if we're going to travel again. It's the first step in a very long trip.
SULLIVAN: But for some Phuket businesses, it's already too late.
THANACHON RAKRANGSIMANSUK: We're not open. We're closed.
SULLIVAN: Thanachon Rakrangsimansuk's Miakhao Beach Bungalows was a modest little place on one of Phuket's most beautiful beaches, tucked in between two upmarket hotels. Her restaurant used to siphon off guests from the mega resorts next door. Now she says, she's pulled the plug for good.
RAKRANGSIMANSUK: Now we don't have staff. We don't have anything. We're finished.
SULLIVAN: But if the Phuket Sandbox experiment is successful, other Thai island destinations will quickly follow suit. Thailand's prime minister is determined to reopen the entire country October 1, if the virus cooperates.
For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai.
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