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Thailand's resort island reopens to foreigners amid COVID-19

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha (R) poses for a photo with a tourist arriving at the terminal of Phuket International Airport during a visit Thursday to the Phuket resort island reopening for international tourists. Photo by Royal Thai Government/EPA-EFE
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha (R) poses for a photo with a tourist arriving at the terminal of Phuket International Airport during a visit Thursday to the Phuket resort island reopening for international tourists. Photo by Royal Thai Government/EPA-EFE

July 1 (UPI) -- Thailand's resort island, Phuket, opened to foreign visitors for the first time since the start of coronavirus pandemic.

The destination's "Phuket Sandbox" program was launched Thursday when flights carrying hundreds of vaccinated travelers arrived from Abu Dhabi, Doha, Tel Aviv and Singapore.

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Thailand's minister of tourism, Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn, told CNN that the ailing local economy needs tourist dollars, and he defended the policy amid Thailand's ongoing struggle with COVID-19.

"Phuket is currently perfectly fit for travel," Phiphat said. "If you look at the nationwide infection number, we would say we are not ready. If you focus only on Phuket, where we have laid our groundwork for more than three months, I would say that Phuket is 100% ready."

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Thailand reopened Phuket to the outside world after focusing on vaccinations for the island. More than 80% of the island's residents have been inoculated with one dose, and about 65% were fully vaccinated by Wednesday, Phuket's public relations office said.

The Southeast Asian nation relies heavily on tourism for revenue.

According to Phiphat, Thailand earned about $93.7 billion from domestic and international tourism in 2019. That number dropped to about $25 billion last year. About 100,000 foreign tourists are expected to arrive in Phuket in the next three months, the Thai official said.

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Thailand's prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who attended the reopening Thursday, has said he wants the entire country reopened for international tourism by mid-October.

There have been difficulties, though.

At least one applicant said they were rejected because Thailand requires confirmation of two doses of administered vaccines. The applicant had received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires one dose, local news service Thaiger reported Thursday.

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Travelers arriving in Phuket must stay on the island for 14 days before moving to other destinations in Thailand. They also need proof of insurance, a negative COVID-19 test result within 72 hours of departure and a certification of vaccination, according to CNN.

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