Bangkok (CNN) — As Thailand continues to battle its third and worst Covid-19 wave since the start of the pandemic, officials say the popular resort island of Phuket is still on track to reopen to international tourists next month.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has confirmed that vaccinated travelers from low-risk countries will be permitted to fly direct to the Thai island without having to quarantine from July 1 as part of its pilot "Phuket Sandbox" program.
TAT Governor Yuthasak Supasorn told CNN that he expects around 129,000 visitors to arrive in Phuket between July and September this year.
Incoming international tourists will be allowed to travel freely on the island and must stay for a minimum of seven days before they will be permitted to travel elsewhere in the country. But Yuthasak notes this is subject to the overall Covid-19 situation in Thailand and could change.
"For the initial stage, only fully vaccinated tourists are allowed in, with the exception of children under six," he said when asked about reports that young travelers who haven't received the Covid-19 vaccine could fly in with their parents.
Further details, such as which countries qualify as "low-risk," are yet to be confirmed, but the TAT says it will update its website regularly with information as it becomes available. The reopening plan is reliant on efforts to vaccinate 70% of the island's residents. A massive vaccination drive is now underway and, according to recent media reports, officials have already vaccinated 50% of the provincial population.
In contrast, approximately 1.6% of Thailand's 70 million people have been fully vaccinated. This has drawn criticisms in the press and on social media, with some questioning the prioritization of Phuket when many at-risk citizens elsewhere have yet to receive their own doses.
A mass nationwide vaccination campaign is due to begin on June 7.
An island desperate for tourists
Phuket's Kata Beach sits empty as the island awaits the return of international travelers.
During a March visit to Phuket, CNN visited three areas hit the hardest by the pandemic -- the beaches of Kata, Karon and Patong. Normally packed with international travelers, these long stretches of sand had few visitors, while the majority of businesses on surrounding streets were shuttered, some buildings bearing "for rent" signs.
Island residents reliant on the tourism industry CNN spoke with said they are pinning their hopes on the Phuket Sandbox plan to reverse their fortunes.
For now, all incoming travelers must quarantine for 14 days in a government-approved quarantine facility or an Alternative State Quarantine (ASQ) facility.
The governor says if the pilot project goes well, it will be expanded to nine additional tourist destinations in the coming months: Krabi; Phang-nga; Koh Samui; Pattaya; Bangkok; Buriram; Cha-am; and Hua Hin.
"There will be a 'standard of practice' for each of these places, but there will be some variations depending on their geography," said Yuthasak. "Above all we have to prioritize the safety and health of the public to prevent further outbreaks."
Thailand struggles to contain third Covid-19 wave
Prior to the current Covid-19 wave, Thailand had fared incredibly well compared to other countries. It shut its borders to international travelers in late March 2020 as Covid-19 began to spread, imposing strict quarantine measures on those who did arrive.
For months, Thailand reported few locally transmitted Covid-19 cases.
However, the country is now struggling to contain a third wave of infections that spread from Bangkok in early April.
On June 1, Thailand reported 2,230 new cases of Covid-19 and 38 new deaths. Since the start of the pandemic, the country has recorded 162,022 cases and 1,069 deaths.
Phuket officials have taken steps to prevent the current outbreak from spreading to the island as it prepares to reopen to international visitors.
Domestic travelers now entering Phuket must be fully vaccinated, have received at least one dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine or recovered from Covid-19 within 90 days. Otherwise, they need to show proof of a negative Covid-19 test conducted within seven days prior to their arrival.