More trouble than it’s worth? Day 1 of Thailand’s ‘Phuket Sandbox’ program

I just arrived in Thailand through the “Phuket Sandbox” initiative, a model that allows vaccinated international travelers to visit without having to quarantine.

Phuket is reopening as Bangkok and five other Thai provinces are under coronavirus restrictions for 30 days after a surge in COVID-19 cases. Certain visitors can travel to the region again, but if you’re expecting an easy application process and seamless entry once on the ground, you may want to temper your expectations.

I wrote earlier this week about Thailand’s complex application process for Sandbox travelers — and how I didn’t even have a visa leading up to departure. Once in Thailand, as I quickly found, the entry process was just as confusing as applying for a visa back in New York.

Here’s how my first day in the Phuket Sandbox went.

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Arriving in Phuket through the “Sandbox” program

After over 26 hours of travel, my flight from Dubai touched down on a rainy afternoon.

For passengers not used to traveling during the pandemic, the sight at the Phuket airport might be unsettling: Airport workers in hospital gowns and mandatory temperature checks. This might seem offputting, but Thailand is in a worrying surge in positive cases, even as Phuket opens to vaccinated travelers. Nearly 6,000 new infections are reported a day, according to Reuters. Sandbox tourists have also tested positive for the virus, according to local reports.

Travelers on inbound flights waited in these somewhat socially distanced plastic chairs for an open station to process their health documentation. It almost felt like a pandemic-era picnic. Helpful airport workers were on hand to ensure travelers had the correct documentation to expedite their entry into Phuket.

As part of the Certificate of Entry application, travelers are required to download a contact tracing app, “ThailandPlus.” This app includes a QR code with your Certificate of Entry and a selfie you’re required to take. And for travelers with privacy concerns, the sheer amount of data it collects — it asked for permission to access motion and fitness activity, for instance — might seem unsettling.

Several travelers, myself included, were taken aback at learning of a second COVID-19 contact tracing needed, which travelers were required to download in order to complete the entry process.

Traveling during the pandemic means showing more documentation than just your passport.

To enter Thailand through the Sandbox program, travelers have to provide a vaccine certificate, a Certificate of Entry, a negative RT-PCR test taken prior to departure and insurance covering a minimum of $100,000 of medical costs, among other forms. My documents were checked and rechecked during my travel journey from New York to Dubai and Phuket.

After having my documents checked by Department of Disease Control workers, things started to look like a normal entry process. I had my passport checked for free pages and stamped, with a friendly “Welcome to Thailand” by the immigration worker. There were stands to purchase sim cards (travelers need to have a working internet connection for contact tracing) and exchange money.

Finally, the last step before leaving the airport was to take a free COVID-19 test — a very thorough nasal swab that made my eyes water. With testing complete, I headed over to catch my ride to the hotel.

Sandbox travelers have to go directly to their hotel and aren’t permitted to stop en route. Travelers are required to quarantine in their hotel rooms — all Sandbox travelers have to stay at a “SHA+ (Safety and Health Administration Plus)” approved property — while they wait for their airport test results. An additional COVID-19 test has to be taken at the hotel — at the expense of the traveler.

I’m writing this from my hotel room, where I’ll remain until I receive my test results from the airport. However, nobody told me when and where I would receive my results.

Even with the restrictions and confusing entry process, my stay doesn’t feel like a “prison vacation.”

Bottom line

Thailand is heavily invested in the Sandbox initiative: the first group of tourists to land in Phuket through the program were even met with a “water tunnel” to mark the occasion. Thai officials also hope the program will provide a successful blueprint to reopen other popular tourist hot spots on October 1, the target date set by Thailand officials.

The program has the potential for success — even with its restrictions — but it has kinks to iron out at every point of the process.

Travelers looking for a seamless pandemic getaway — if such a thing exists — might find Thailand’s Sandbox application and requirements to be a bit daunting. If Thailand wants the program to be a success it may want to simplify or better explain the Phuket Sandbox.

Featured photo by luliia Serova / Getty Images

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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