Bangkok (CNN) — Hope is on the horizon for travelers wanting to spend their upcoming winter holidays in Thailand -- provided they're willing to spend several weeks in the kingdom and only stick to designated areas.
During a public forum held late last week, Thailand's Minister of Tourism Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn said the country is aiming to allow foreign tourists to enter the country through a program dubbed "Safe and Sealed."
"I have asked the prime minister for approval to set October 1 as the date to allow (inbound) tourists to enter," he said. "I also have requested to use Phuket as a pilot model ... and have received approval from the Center for Economic Situation Administration."
If successful, the project will be expanded to include other destinations.
In the beginning, tourists will be permitted to fly into Phuket -- Thailand's largest island -- and will need to quarantine in a designated resort for 14 days.
Phiphat cited popular Patong Beach as an example of an area where this could work. Special one-kilometer zones consisting of three-to-four resorts could be set up there, allowing quarantined tourists to spend time on the beach -- so long as they stay in their designated area.
Travelers will need to get tested for Covid-19 at the beginning and end of their quarantine period. Then, they will be free to travel on the island.
But the minister says tourists who wish to travel beyond Phuket will have to stay in quarantine for an additional seven days and will have a third Covid-19 test at the end of that 21-day quarantine period.
Hotel staff who work in these designated zones will not be permitted to leave without first going into quarantine and will be tested regularly for Covid-19 as well to prevent the spread of the virus.
Yuthasak Supasorn, governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, tells CNN Travel the plan has been approved by the government and the next step involves holding a public hearing to get approval from local residents.
This is expected to take place in early September.
A step in the right direction
International tourists enjoy a Phuket beach in March, just weeks before the island locked down due to Covid-19.
MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty Images
Like most countries that rely heavily on tourism, the pandemic has hit Thailand's economy hard.
The country's tourism sector normally contributes close to 15% of its GDP, according to the World Bank.
For now, domestic travelers are infusing some much-needed cash into the ailing industry. Thailand hasn't reported a locally transmitted Covid-19 infection in more than three months, giving travelers a sense of security as they hit the road for weekend getaways.
But for destinations like Phuket and Koh Samui, which aren't within driving distance of Bangkok, the lack of international tourists has been devastating.
Phuket-based Bill Barnett, managing director of Asia-focused consulting firm C9 Hotelworks, says the plan to welcome international travelers to Phuket is a step in the right direction.
"Covid-19 is unparalleled compared to other events but, looking at 9/11 and the restarting of travel, it was in baby steps, not giant steps," says Barnett.
"'Safe and Sealed' is not a silver bullet but it's a step forward versus assuming the 'deer in the headlights' position so I'd view it as positive."
Dismissing criticisms the project may be too restrictive, he says Phuket has long demonstrated its appeal as a destination for "snow birds" looking to escape the winter season.
"Working a legacy segment that already stays for over a month during the winter is a rational step," says Barnett, who notes that Scandinavians, Russians, Britons and Germans all return to Phuket each year as long-stay guests.
"One thing for sure is, once temperatures drop in Europe, the snowbirds will take flight, and logically Phuket should be (one of their) destinations."