In a post at the end of Q1 in 2021 I wondered aloud about when we’ll be able to travel in Southeast Asia again and the answer was basically, “Who knows, except for Thailand.” The favored nation for backpackers is way ahead of its neighbors in devising a reopening plan. So budget Thailand travel may be a reality before anywhere else in the region as the world starts opening back up to vaccinated travelers.
The thing to remember, however, is that the country’s tourism board is not having meetings about how to lure back scruffy backpackers getting by on $20 a day. Their main goal is to bring back package tourists who are going to come for a week or two, spend freely at the resorts, then fly back home. The planners probably realize that they don’t have to try very hard to get budget travelers back–that’s just a natural bonus. Luring back the hesitant vacation crowd is tougher.
So it’s not in phase 1 that you need to be researching that bus from Bangkok to Ko Phangan so you can go dance all night under a full moon. Save those budget Thailand travel plans for later in the year.
Thailand’s Phased Tourism Reopening Plan
While most countries around the world have treated border openings as a binary decision, the powers that be in Thailand have clearly had more than a few meetings to figure out the best way forward. Here’s where we are right now on the opening schedule.
Phase 1: Vaccinated and Tested Travelers Welcome Now to 5 Provinces
Back in March, Thailand announced a Phuket opening only, but they’ve actually expanded that to other areas in the real implementation. If you’re willing to jump through enough hoops, you can actually fly to Thailand right now, chill out for two weeks, then (in theory anyway) be on your way in different spots. The tricky part is, you can’t fly into Bangkok. You must arrive in Phuket, Phang Nga, Chiang Mai, Pattaya, or Krabi.
Phuket has the most international flights, so that might still be the easiest option and you won’t have a problem finding a place worth staying put in for 14 days. There’s plenty to choose from and you won’t have a problem getting a variety of food delivered.
What do you have to do? Bring proof that you’re fully vaccinated, test negative within 72 hours of arrival, get tested again upon arrival, agree to be tracked via a contact tracing app, show proof of sufficient travel insurance, and self-isolate for 14 days before you go anywhere. So while I said that the country is not actively trying to court long-term travelers and digital nomads, those travelers are probably the only ones who are going to put up with all this upon arrival. Who wants to self-isolate their entire two-week vacation?
Phase 2: No Quarantine in Phuket
For now, the original announcement holds for Phuket starting July 1: no quarantine if you arrive fully vaccinated and testing negative. Thailand has flip-flopped on this a couple times with news of spreading variants worsening the situation in countries like India, however, so check the news for the current rules before booking anything.
If this holds, their target market of fly-in vacationers can return and have a nice Thailand holiday again. The locals get to be a priority in the country for vaccine distribution too. As the AP reported, “Part of the plan to institute what is being called a ‘tourism sandbox’ involves inoculating at least 450,000, or 70%, of Phuket’s residents before the July reopening.”
What has been left out of these announcements though is what can happen after that. Will travelers be able to rent a car and go exploring? Can they hop a bus to Krabi and onward from Phuket? What about the thriving capital city and its business travelers?
We’ll have to watch for more clarification on that later.
Phase 3: No Quarantine in 5 Provinces Starting in October
If you want to book a flight to Thailand with the assumption you can easily visit more than your arrival city, the best bet is to probably book one in October or later. At that point, you can visit any of the five pilot provinces without having to quarantine: Phuket, Phang Nga, Chiang Mai, Pattaya, or Krabi.
This is when I expect the digital nomads to return in force since they can arrive in Chiang Mai, get set up in an apartment, and use that as their base. There are plenty of internal flights from there, the internet is fast, and it’s a natural gathering place for those location-independent workers and online business owners who can be based anywhere.
There’s still the question of whether you’ll be able to visit provinces that are not part of those five, like if you want to go explore Sukothai or Ayutthaya for some Siamese history, or head to southern Thailand. It would be logical to let visitors go where they want if they’re vaccinated since the local infection rate has been so low.
Phase 4: Back to Normal for Thailand Travel
There’s been no announcement on when the final phase will be and it’s probably going to depend on how it plays out in the three phases before that. We may never get back to “normal” since there are a lot of signs the anti-vaxxers aren’t going to be able to travel internationally except to a few select locations here and there. Some airlines have indicated that they’ll require some kind of vaccination passport to step onto their plane. Cruise ship companies are currently fighting with the #Floriduh governor and threatening to pull out of the state if they can’t do the same.
Regardless, at some point the country will open back up again, at least to the majority of travelers who have gotten their jabs, and by then we should be able to move freely about the country again. I’m guessing that will be Q1 or Q2 of 2022 since Thailand was one of the most popular countries in the world before the pandemic and Bangkok was the most-visited city. Tourism was a huge chunk of their economy. They used to get more than 10 million visitors per year in Phuket alone. Now they’re hoping to attract 100,000 in the third quarter.
If you’re reading this months after I wrote it, the rules have probably changed (just as their visa rules seem to do every few months). Go to the Tourism Authority of Thailand site for the official word and check Bookaway.com for the current transportation options from point A to point B.