The first international travellers touched down Thursday in the holiday hotspot of Phuket under a quarantine-free scheme, as Thailand tries to reboot its battered tourism industry while also enduring its worst coronavirus outbreak.
Tourism makes up almost a fifth of the Thai economy, and the COVID-19 pandemic has led to its worst performance since the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
The kingdom is pinning hopes for a much-needed revival on the so-called "Phuket sandbox" – a model that will allow vaccinated travellers to visit without quarantine.
On Thursday, about 200 passengers on flights from Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Singapore were expected to land on the island – where the beaches have been almost deserted since the virus hit.
The first 25 travellers arrived on an Etihad Airways flight before noon and underwent screening procedures.
Among them was Omar Al Raessi, from the UAE, who said he had previously been to the island 15 times and would spend eight days relaxing.
"After two years of not travelling, I've chosen the Phuket sandbox to change my mood," the 37-year-old said.
A British tourist said he would stay for a month and was looking forward to a family reunion.
"My children live here so I'm going to see my kids," he said.
French consultant Bruno Souillard, 60, said the scheme would allow him to eventually get to his holiday home elsewhere in Thailand, without being quarantined.
"It is annoying to spend vacations locked up in a hotel for 15 days and (here) we are not locked up so that's great," he said.
The launch of the quarantine-free scheme comes as Thailand grapples with its worst-ever COVID-19 wave and the worrying detection of the Alpha and Delta coronavirus variants.
Nationwide, the current case tally is at more than 260,000.
But Phuket remains relatively unscathed as Thai authorities have rolled out a mass vaccination campaign in preparation for the quarantine-free arrivals, with 70 percent of the island's residents receiving at least one dose.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha travelled to Phuket for the launch and said the pilot scheme would provide the basis for reopening the entire country in October.
"Phuket citizens should be proud as they are fulfilling their duty for the entire nation," he told reporters at the Royal Phuket City Hotel.
"We would like the Phuket sandbox to be successful so it can be applied as guidelines for our goals."
Besides being fully vaccinated, tourists must remain in Phuket for a fortnight if they wish to travel to the rest of Thailand, and take three coronavirus tests during this period.
A command centre will track foreign visitors' movements via a mobile app – which tourists are required to install on arrival – and also monitor for potential outbreaks.
Despite the fanfare, tourism operators are lukewarm on the resuscitation of the economy on the island, where nearly 90 percent of hotels have been shuttered.
"I think the restrictions make people travel less," said Kongsak Khoopongsakorn, president of the Thai Hotels Association Southern Chapter, who runs a resort on the island.
Kongsak added that authorities had downgraded their sandbox entry forecast of 129,000 visitors in the third quarter, to 100,000.
But even a trickle of visitors will be a lifeline for desperate vendors such as Thewan Phromyang, who rents out deck chairs at Phuket's Patong Beach.
"I barely have any income. We can only feed ourselves," the 49-year-old said.
Another regional tourist hotspot, Bali, had been eyeing a July reopening but Indonesian authorities appeared to have backed down as virus cases surged to record levels.
While Jakarta has not announced an official cancellation, comments this week from the tourism minister suggested that any bid to welcome back tourists was likely to be delayed until infections are curbed. – AFP