Test & Go: Thailand's new hope for an inbound tourism recovery
Coupled with an expansion of the sandbox model, the new program is Thailand's biggest step towards a tourism recovery since the pandemic began. (Island Watch #14)
From the protracted border closures of 2020 to a devastating wave of Covid-19 earlier this year and on to the Phuket Sandbox and other tourism reopening programs more recently, I’ve done my best to chronicle Thailand’s efforts to overcome the pandemic, resume international tourism and set out on what is sure to be a lengthy recovery. Today, the country takes another big leap in that direction.
November 1st, 2021, will be remembered as the day when it became possible for travelers from any of 63 countries to quarantine for only one night before traveling Thailand as they please. This new “Test & Go” program falls a hair short of the freedom enjoyed by inbound travelers before the pandemic, but it simplifies the entry process for many people who are keen to visit Thailand.
A few hurdles and you’re off
Though it’s far more complicated than simply buying a plane ticket and showing up with a passport like in the pre-pandemic days, the Test & Go program appears fairly simple when compared to the Sandbox, the Special Tourist Visa and other previous attempts to reopen Thailand to international tourists.
If fully vaccinated and testing negative on a RT-PCR test taken no more than 72 hours before departure, travelers from any of the approved countries can freely travel around Thailand after testing negative on a second RT-PCR test taken shortly after arrival in the country. On days six or seven of their stays, they’re required to self-administer an ATK test and input the results into MorChana, a government-operated smartphone app that’s supposed to be downloaded after arrival.
Travelers also need to obtain the new Thailand Pass, which is replacing the Certificate of Entry, and enter Thailand by air at Suvarnabhumi or Don Mueang airports in Bangkok, or at the Chiang Mai, Krabi, Ko Samui, Phuket or U-Tapao (Rayong-Pattaya) airports. While awaiting results of the only RT-PCR test on Thai soil, they need to spend their first night in quarantine at a pre-booked SHA+ hotel in the entry destination. Depending on the arrival time and the testing processes provided by the hotel in cooperation with a hospital, travelers will need to wait between six and 30 hours for results before exiting their room.
Proof of insurance covering up to $50,000 USD in Covid-19 care is required, though Thai citizens and foreign residents with social security are reportedly exempt. The Tourism Authority of Thailand’s news site has a more complete list of rules, and the Thailand Pass FAQ from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is also worth a look. Richard Barrow is currently testing Test & Go and sharing his findings.
Launching alongside Test & Go is an expansion of the sandbox model to 17 “blue zone” areas where vaccinated travelers from countries not on the Test & Go list can enter Thailand with minimal quarantine if taking two RT-PCR tests over the course of a week spent within those areas. If both of the tests come back negative, they gain the privilege of freely traveling around Thailand.
Bloomberg called Test & Go “the biggest reopening gamble in Asia.” It’s certainly a gamble due to Thailand’s relatively low vaccination rate and a Covid-19 situation that remains tenuous in some parts of the country. Travelers who use the program also accept some risk. The possibility of being placed in mandatory medical care if testing positive after arrival is enough to keep many of them away.
But Thailand has placed itself at the front of the pack when it comes to international travel reopening in Southeast Asia, where other countries are starting to play catch up. Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam are all dropping lengthy quarantine for some vaccinated inbound travelers, even if the rules tend to be more limiting than those of Thailand’s minimal-quarantine options.
Many people in Thailand were tickled to see movie star “Khun Russell” promoting the Test & Go program during his recent stay and film shoot in Phuket and Bangkok.
What to expect?
Some parts of Thailand don’t look or feel like they did before March 2020. Shuttered businesses and ‘ghost town’ scenes are likely to persist in tourism-reliant areas that have been hit hard economically, including parts of the most popular islands and beach areas. Still, recently eased containment measures and a nationwide vaccination rate above 40%, and rising fast, are improving the outlook for travelers.
Thailand reported a daily average of 9,578 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 72 deaths over the last three weeks. The situation in many areas, such as Bangkok, has improved tremendously since the grim days of July and August.
Vaccination rates in many popular tourist areas — including Bangkok, Phuket, Ko Samui, Phang Nga and Chonburi — are now above or close to 70%. But some of the less vaccinated areas, such as Nakhon Si Thammarat, are still struggling with outbreaks. After being largely spared when the crisis was at its worst in much of Thailand, Chiang Mai now faces a “critical” situation at some hospitals.
Many people believe that Thailand should delay its ‘big reopening’ until the nationwide vaccination rate hits 70% (achievable by year’s end), but the government is eagerly forwarding its agenda of “learning to live with Covid-19.” Curfew has been fully lifted in several provinces for the first time since July. Kids are returning to school after more than six months of online learning.
Alcohol can again be legally served in Bangkok, though only until 9:00 PM and only in SHA-certified restaurants. Bars that can’t be disguised as restaurants remain closed. Alcohol consumption has already been permitted at restaurants in Phuket and Ko Samui for weeks, but the Chonburi governor recently angered restaurant owners by extending a ban on alcohol sales (excluding at shops) in tourism-reliant areas like Pattaya. In Bangkok, restauranteurs are criticizing the rule that only SHA-certified restaurants can serve alcohol, and their sentiment echoes the guesthouse owners in Phuket who say a rule that Sandbox travelers can only patronize certain types of businesses that are SHA certified favors large companies.
Domestic travel is open to vaccinated travelers throughout Thailand, though rules do vary slightly by province. Domestic flights are operating, albeit with extra rules, and curbs on bus and train travel have been eased. Vaccinated travelers are welcome at popular islands like Ko Larn, Ko Samet and Ko Chang, while remote destinations like Sangkhlaburi and Mu Ko Similan are also reopening. The same goes for many of Bangkok’s famous sites, such as Wat Arun and the Grand Palace.
Having joined most of Thailand in dropping Covid-19 testing requirements for domestic travelers, another island where you need only show proof of vaccination to board a ferry is Ko Phangan. After a 20-month hiatus, its Full Moon Party returned to Hat Rin on October 28th with around 100 revelers gathered around a campfire. Mellow as it was, the rebirth of this famous event is significant. 🌴
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