Newly arrived overseas tourists on Thailand's island of Phuket were able to roam free without quarantine on Friday for the first time in more than a year, as Thailand launched a special programme for vaccinated visitors to the island.
Tourists swam in hotel pools and walked along Phuket's postcard-perfect beaches after receiving a COVID-19 test result within 24 hours of arrival.
"This is the perfect place to just relax and clean our minds, our heads, after a long time," said Sigal Baram, lying by the pool, who was visiting from Israel with her husband and friends. The group was among the first to arrive in the country.
The 'Phuket Sandbox' initiative allows free movement on the island for fully vaccinated tourists, with no quarantine required, although masks are required in most public places.
While five-star hotels and restaurants welcomed back tourists, local street vendors said they were not benefiting from the plan, because tourists frequent mostly large hotels.
"There is no way street vendors will get the money from overseas tourists... it will go to hotels and restaurants instead," said Yupin Papor, a massage therapist who lost her job during the pandemic and became a street vendor selling food on the beach.
Thailand lost about US$50 billion in tourism revenue last year, when foreign arrivals plunged 83 percent.
Phuket was hit particularly hard by job losses and business closures.
"I see the shops closed. It's a big difference to me from before," said Omar Alraeesi from United Arab Emirates, who comes to Phuket every year.
Millions of people visited Phuket every year before the pandemic and the government and tourism industry hope the reopening will help save its battered economy.