Bali and Thailand Plan on Fully Reopening to Tourists by July

Both destinations will serve as a “sandbox,” a new kind of travel bubble

Mai Khao Beach near Phuket International Airport

 KDP/Getty Images

Thailand and Bali in Indonesia—two areas in Southeast Asia that rely heavily on tourism revenue—are making plans to welcome visitors again. Thailand (as always) is far ahead of everyone else; starting in July 2021, vaccinated foreign tourists can enter the island province of Phuket without any quarantine requirements whatsoever.

The warm, quarantine-free welcome to Phuket is actually Phase 2 of a three-phase program approved by the Thai government:

  • Phase 1 started in April, with a shortened quarantine period for vaccinated foreign tourists. They are required to stay in government-approved hotels and travel within strictly designated routes. (We covered this in an earlier update on Thailand’s impending reopening.)
  • Phase 2 will roll out from July to September: Phuket rolls out the red carpet (without quarantines) to vaccinated tourists, who can roam throughout the island for seven days, then go on to visit other Thai destinations afterward. For vaccinated travelers going straight to five other major destinations—Krabi, Phang Nga, Surat Thani (Koh Samui), Chon Buri (Pattaya), and Chiang Mai—the shortened quarantine rules under Phase 1 apply.
  • Phase 3 will roll out from October to December. The aforementioned destinations will follow Phuket’s lead in lifting quarantine requirements for vaccinated tourists. However, they will be restricted to designated areas in these destinations for seven days before visiting other Thai tourist stops.

The working theory is that each of these destinations will serve as a “sandbox,” a kind of travel bubble that can contain new tourists without limiting their freedom of movement. The sandbox's effectiveness will depend on how thoroughly Thailand can inoculate the local population: herd immunity should be activated by completely vaccinating at least 70 percent of each area’s residents.

Phuket Leads the Way

All hopes now ride on Phuket, which is currently in the middle of a frenzied vaccination campaign aiming to inoculate 70 percent of its populace—some 466,600 residents—with two doses each, necessitating some 933,000 doses by the July 1 deadline. “If we can build immunity for 70 to 80 percent of the population on the island, we can receive foreign tourists who have been vaccinated without the need for quarantine,” explained Phuket’s Vice Governor Piyapong Choowong in an interview with Reuters.

The Kingdom is betting on Phuket so much, it let the province jump the queue for vaccines ahead of other provinces in Thailand. If the gamble pays off, the province will welcome some 150,000 tourists from 28 countries between July and September and earn an estimated $955 million in tourism revenue along the way.

The other provinces leading the way are also going all-in with vaccines: 25,000 residents of Koh Samui received their shots on the week of April 4, with other rollouts scheduled before Phase 3 begins.

Tourism authorities also count on reciprocal vaccine rollouts abroad to drive demand in the fourth quarter of 2021, leading to some 6.5 million visitors and about $11 billion in tourism revenue by the end of Phase 3.

“It’s a challenge. But that will contribute to GDP to some extent,” said Tourism Authority of Thailand Governor Yuthasak Supasorn. “We don’t expect tourists will come in like a broken dam, but we hope to have quality visitors with high spending.”

The TAT expects Europe, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States to arrive first, hopefully, to follow with the rest of the world.

Children playing and surfers watching the sunset on Kuta Beach.
Natalie Grono/Getty Images

Bali’s “Green Zones”

Bali is taking a similar approach to Thailand’s by setting up “green zones” with vaccine-driven herd immunity to protect tourists from contagion.

The green zones will be located in Ubud, Bali’s highland spiritual capital; Nusa Dua, an enclave of five-star resorts and facilities; and Sanur, a beach town on the east coast. Indonesia President Joko Widodo anticipates reopening the borders by June or July 2021.

Like Thailand, Indonesia’s tourism authorities hinge the scheme on creating herd immunity through vaccinations for some three million residents, or 70% of the island’s population.

Bali Governor Wayan Koster said he had secured 700,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, which can be used for inoculating 350,000 residents on the island. “We need about six million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to help us create herd immunity,” explained Governor Koster.

Vaccinations for residents in the three green zones kicked off on March 22, with some 170,400 shots prepared for Ubud, Nusa Dua, and Sanur residents.

Delicate Balance

Some local experts are warning that Bali will find the whole scheme difficult to pull off.

Indonesian epidemiologist Dicky Budiman, M.D., suggests the green zone plan may not work out as intended. “As we are still unsure how these new protocols will perform, I feel the government is not being realistic with its June target date,” he said.

Dr. Budiman believes that Indonesia’s high COVID infection rate may overpower any precautions taken by each of Bali’s green zones. “Bali still has a long way to go to achieve the World Health Organization’s minimum safety rate of 5 percent or less for positive test results, and they are still a long way from immunizing at least 60 percent of the population,” he explained. “It would have to be done in a month or two to stand a chance to even think about reopening in June.”

But Bali hardly has any choice in the matter. Due to its outsize dependence on tourism as a source of revenue, the Balinese economy has contracted even more relative to the rest of the Indonesian economy in the wake of the pandemic.

“Fifty-four percent of Bali's [economy] is supported by the tourism sector," explained the head of the Bali Tourism Office, Putu Astawa. “There are 3,000 layoffs, and from the data as of February, Bali's unemployment rate has increased. Under normal circumstances, our unemployment rate is only 1.2 to 1.3 percent; under the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s reached 5.63 percent.”

Faced with the same stark choices as Phuket and Bali, the rest of Southeast Asia (as yet completely closed to tourists from the West) can only wait from the wings and see if both areas’ experiments pay off—or if the gamble on reviving tourism will cost both places dearly.

Article Sources
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  1. TAT News. "TAT announces a roadmap to reopen Thailand to vaccinated tourists." April 2, 2021.

  2. Thai PBS World. "TAT to propose “Sandbox” travel bubble model to the CCSA this Friday." March 22, 2021.

  3. Bangkok Post. "Phuket joy over govt reopen plan." March 28, 2021.

  4. Bangkok Post. "Tourists from 28 countries drawn to Phuket relaunch." April 4, 2021.

  5. Thaiger. "25,000 people injected with Covid-19 vaccine this week in Koh Samui." April 8, 2021.

  6. Reuters. "Tourism first! Island of Phuket in mass vaccination drive ahead of the rest of Thailand." April 5, 2021.

  7. South China Morning Post. "Bali vs Phuket: which Asian resort island will win the race to restart international tourism?" April 3, 2021.

  8. The Bali Times. "Vaccination campaign key for revival of Bali’s tourism industry." April 4, 2021.

  9. Republika.co.id. "Vaksinasi Covid-19 untuk Zona Hijau di Bali Dimulai Serentak." March 21, 2021.

  10. CNBC Indonesia. "Covid-19 Sebabkan 3.000 Karyawan di Bali Kena PHK." April 8, 2021.

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