A Regional Network of Sandboxes for Post-COVID 19 Recovery of Marine Tourism in Southeast Asia by Vu Hai Dang

20/10/2021 with [225 views] no comments

A Regional Network of Sandboxes for Post-COVID 19
Recovery of Marine Tourism in Southeast Asia

by Vu Hai Dang[1]


Before COVID-19, Southeast Asia was a well-known destination for world travellers. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), in 2018, six Southeast Asian countries were among the world top 50 in attracting the highest number of international tourists (from the highest: Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Viet Nam, Indonesia and Philippines).[2] Furthermore, tourism was an important source of income of all ASEAN Member States.

In 2020, COVID-19 caused great loss to the tourism industry of all ASEAN Member States. In terms of international tourist arrivals, the losses range from 75% to 81%. In terms of tourism revenue, the total amount of loss of all 10 ASEAN Member States reached 137 billion US dollars (see Table below for details). These losses are increasing as most of the region is still struggling with the rise of infections and lockdown.

Countries Loss in International Tourist Arrivals
Loss in Tourism Revenue
(Millions USD)
Brunei 81% 271
Cambodia 80% 3900
Indonesia 75% 10000
Laos 81% 721
Malaysia 83% 32800
Myanmar 79% 2257
Philippines 82% 8000
Thailand 83% 37500
Singapore 86% 22900
Viet Nam 79% 19000

Losses in international tourist arrivals and tourism revenue of ASEAN Member States
(UNWTO and News)[3]

            To facilitate the recovery of the national tourism industry and allow a step-by-step re-opening of the country, Thailand has come up with the Phuket sandbox model. This model seems to be effective as the Thai Tourism Authority has expanded it to other areas in Thailand. Other neighbouring countries such as Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Viet Nam are planning to open their own sandbox. This paper argues that a Southeast Asia network of sandboxes could be established to benefit the region’s tourism industry as a whole.

The Phuket Sandbox

            The Phuket Sandbox is an initiative from Thailand, launched by the Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha himself in July 2021, to revive the tourism industry of Thailand and reopen the country.[4] According to the Thai Tourism Authority, from the 1st of July 2021, travellers from a list of 70 countries or territories approved by the Thailand’s Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration[5] can spend time in Phuket without having to serve quarantine. Before arriving to Phuket, tourists must be fully vaccinated and tested negative for COVID-19. They must also purchase an insurance covering healthcare and treatment expenses for COVID-19 for the whole duration in Thailand with an coverage no less than 100,000 US dollars.[6] Once arriving to Phuket, tourists must stay in a Thailand Safety and Health Administration certified hotels[7] and take COVD-19 tests three times (respectively on the first day of arrival, 6th or 7th day of staying and 12th or 13th day of staying).[8] They can then go anywhere in Phuket, including taking cruise excursions and shore trips, provided that they adhere to precaution measures[9] and wear masks in public.[10] Under the “Phuket Sandbox 7+7 Extension” programme, after spending 7 days in Phuket, tourists can also spend another 7 days in an extension area namely: Krabi (Ko Phi Phi, Ko Ngai, or Railay Beach), Phang-Nga (Khao Lak or Ko Yao) or Surat Thani (Ko Samui, Ko Pha-ngan, or Ko Tao) if their two COVID-19 tests are negative.[11] After spending 14 days in Phuket or an extension area, tourists can visit other provinces of Thailand.[12] Finally, during their stay in Phuket, if the tourist is tested positive for COVID-10, he or she will be referred to a healthcare facility for medical treatment, for which the expenses must be covered by the required insurance.[13]

            The Phuket Sandbox has known some initial successes. Until September 2021, 26.400 foreigners have landed in Phuket mostly from United States, United Kingdom, Israel, Germany, France, the United Arab Emirates and Switzerland. Their average length of staying is 11 – 12 days. Among these arrivals, 83 people have been tested positive for COVID-19, which is equivalent to 0.3 per cent of the total arriving people. Even though these numbers fall short from the target of receiving 100,000 tourists in the third quarter, there are rooms for optimism as a total of 462,968 room nights have been reserved since the project was and another 24,947 nights have been reserved for the high season from October to February next year.[14]

            Other Southeast Asian countries are also mulling to open their well-known islands to international tourism. Concretely, Indonesia plans to open Bali,[15] Malaysia, to open Langkawi[16] and Viet Nam, Phu Quoc for international tourism.[17] The next section of this blog explains how ASEAN can help connect current and potential national tourism sandboxes into regional network. Such a network will not only promote these individual spots as places of destination for international travelling but also have the benefits to the broader region.

 Suggestions for a Regional Network of Tourism Sandboxes

            This section of the blog provides concrete suggestions on how to establish and implement a regional network of tourism sandboxes in Southeast Asia. It discusses the governance framework, harmonisation of conditions to accept international tourists, mutual recognition of staying time, improvement of the connectivity between sandboxes with the rest of the region and the promotion of sandboxes as venues for regional meetings. Finally, it suggests the establishment of a cruise corridor between these sandboxes to help cruise tourism in the region.

Governance framework of the Southeast Asia network of tourism sandboxes

            The Southeast Asian network of tourism sandboxes could be established and governed under the framework of ASEAN, specifically under the Meeting of ASEAN Tourism Ministers (M-ATM). M-ATM is the ASEAN sectoral body in charge of tourism cooperation established in 1998 in Cebu, Philippines with the objective to give ASEAN cooperation in tourism “top-level direction, guidance, impetus and strength”.[18] Areas of cooperation under the purview of M-ATM include, among other things, coordination and/or harmonization of tourism policies and programmes, facilitation of intra-ASEAN travel, promotion of tourism incentives to facilitate the development of tourism infrastructure and other related travel and tourism facilities and strengthening cooperation and joint approaches in addressing international and regional tourism issues in areas of common interests.[19] Since then, M-ATM has been meeting annually with the latest meeting being the 24th M-ATM held in February 2021 via videoconference.[20]

            At the 37th ASEAN Summit in 2020, ASEAN Leaders adopted the ASEAN Declaration on an ASEAN Travel Corridor Arrangement Framework.[21] Pursuant to the Declaration, ASEAN will take steps towards the establishment of an ASEAN travel corridor arrangement framework to facilitate essential business travels among ASEAN Member States without precluding the application of the framework to other categories of travel in the future.[22] During the 24th M-ATM, ASEAN Tourism Ministers acknowledged the importance of expediting the operationalisation of the arrangement framework as a way to reopen ASEAN.[23] A network of Southeast Asia tourism sandboxes could be an effective way to help M-ATM to operationalise the ASEAN Travel Corridor Arrangement Framework. Thus, the ASEAN Member States Tourism Ministers could sign an MOU under the framework of the M-ATM in order to establish the network.

 Harmonisation of conditions to accept international tourists across the network

            For the network to run smoothly, the first important condition is that each of its national node would have the same requirements for the acceptance of international tourists. These requirements mainly concern with the origin of the travellers, their vaccination status, COVID-19 testing, and the length of staying. Based on the rules currently applying to the Phuket Sandbox, following conditions could apply to all sandboxes in the region:

  1. i) The tourist must not come from a country or territory where the situation of the pandemic is uncontrollable;
  2. ii) The tourist must be fully vaccinated by a vaccine which is internationally recognised;

            iii) The tourist must be tested negative for COVID-19 at least one or two days before the departure; and

  1. iv) The tourist must stay within the sandbox territory for at least 14 days.

For the harmonisation of these requirements, measures must be implemented by ASEAN to come up with a commonly agreed system of monitoring the situation of the pandemic in the world. As the situation is evolving quickly, the system must be updated daily. Furthermore, ASEAN could establish a list of vaccines which are accepted by all its Member States. This could be based on the list of vaccines approved by the World Health Organisation for emergency use.[24]

Mutual Recognition of the Staying Time in Sandboxes

            Once the conditions for accepting international tourists were harmonised in all sandboxes, it is logical for ASEAN Member States to mutually recognise the time that a tourist spent in their respective sandbox. It means that if a person has stayed 14 days in Phuket or any other potentially established sandbox such as Bali, Langkawi or Phu Quoc, this person can then go anywhere in their territories without having to serve quarantine again. Additionally, the “Phuket Sandbox Extension 7+7” could also apply between sandboxes of different countries. Accordingly, a person can opt to stay seven days in a sandbox of an ASEAN Member State and another seven days in another ASEAN Member State’s sandbox.

Improvement of connectivity between sandboxes and the rest of the region

            To increase the capacity of sandboxes to receive people from the region, the connectivity between these locations and the rest of Southeast Asia should be improved. Thus, more transportation links by sea and by air between these sandboxes and important regional cities could be established. Two important advantages play in the favour of these sandboxes. First, some of them have been receiving international and regional flights and cruises before the pandemic so they already have the necessary infrastructure in places. Second, under the ASEAN Framework Agreement on Visa Exemption, 2006,[25] citizens of ASEAN Member States can travel within ASEAN region visa-free. What’s more needed is just to speed up and facilitate the process to authorise new flights and cruises to the sandboxes.

Promotion of sandboxes for regional meetings and conferences

            It is estimated that ASEAN have over 1000 meetings per year.[26] However, since the beginning of the pandemic, most ASEAN meetings have been either postponed or conducted via videoconference. Many other regional conferences, workshops and meetings have suffered the same fate. While videoconferences could be an alternative, arguably they could not replace face-to-face meetings, especially in dealing with important or sensitive issues. The network of sandboxes could serve as host for regional meetings and conferences. Thus, ASEAN can help promote these locations for the organisation of its meetings as well as other regional meetings and conferences. This would be mutually beneficial as it allows for meetings to be held face-to-face while boosting the local businesses.

Establishment of a cruise corridor across different sandboxes

            Sea cruise tourism has been encouraged by ASEAN. The ASEAN Tourism Agreement, 2001 stipulated that ASEAN Member States shall develop appropriate policies to encourage cruising, travel by ferries, and leisure boats by providing adequate infrastructure and facilitating seamless travelling.[27] At the 21st M-ATM in 2018, an ASEAN Declaration on Cruise Tourism was adopted, stating that ASEAN Member States will endeavour to implement efficient administration and procedures to support cruise tourism in the region.[28] At the latest 24th M-ATM in 2021, ASEAN Ministers of Tourism also agreed to implement an ASEAN Sea Cruise Tourism Corridor.[29]

            Accordingly, ASEAN can support the establishment of a sea cruise tourism corridor that goes across established sandboxes. This can not only help ASEAN to fulfil its commitment towards an ASEAN Sea Cruise Tourism Corridor but also add an important value to the sandboxes. Safety measures could be put in place to control the acceptance, embarkment, itinerary and dis-embarkment of people to avoid any unfortunate infection incident. For instance, the cruise can only stop at sandboxes and all its passengers and crew member should be fully vaccinated and tested negative for COVID-19 before embarkment.


            This blog suggests some concrete measures that ASEAN can take to establish a Southeast Asia network of tourism sandboxes. Such a network could help ASEAN Member States’ tourism industry to recover from the disastrous impacts of COVID-19 and allow for a slow re-opening of the region. At the same time, some measures such as cruise corridor across those different sandboxes can be a long-term initiative to help boosting cruise and islands tourism in the region even after COVID-19 is over.

[1] The blog was written based on the author’s presentation at the ASEAN-China South China Sea Thinktank Dialogue, 26 – 27 August 2021.
[2] For details, see International tourism revenue – Country rankings, online: The Global Economy <>, accessed 10 September 2021. 
[3] For the loss in international tourist arrivals, see: International Tourism and COVID-19, online: UNWTO <>. For the loss in tourism revenue in each ASEAN Member State in 2020, see Brunei Tourism Performance Final Report January-December 2020, online: Tourism Development Department – Ministry of Primary Resources and Tourism of Brunei Darussalam <> (Brunei);  Hin Pisel, “Revenue from international tourism dips 80 per cent in 2020” (19 April 2021) The Phnom Penh Post <> (Cambodia); “Indonesia’s tourism industry suffers more than $9.5b losses due to Covid-19 pandemic” (18 November 2020) online: The Straits Times <> (Indonesia); Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, Statistical Report on Tourism in Laos 2020, online: The European Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Lao PDR <> (Laos); “Coronavirus: Malaysia launches 10-year tourism plan after $32 billion loss in 2020” (23 December 2020) online: The Straits Times <> (Malaysia); Zeyar Hein, “Tourism Revenue in Myanmar dips 80% during COVID-19” online: Myanmar Times <> (Myanmar); “Philippines loses over 8 billion USD in tourism revenue in 2020” (3 February 2021) online Xin Hua <> (Philippines); “Visitor arrivals to Singapore plummet more than 80% in 2020, expected to stay weak amid COVID-19: STB” (1 February 2021) online: CNA <> (Singapore); “Thailand ranks 4th in the world for highest loss of tourism revenue – Official ESTA” (21 January 2021) online: Thaiger <> (Thailand); and “Du lịch Việt Nam 2020: phát huy nội lực trong bão COVID-19” [in English: Viet Nam’s tourism 2020: making use of internal resources amid the COVID-19 storm] (03 January 2021) online: Nhân Dân <> (Viet Nam); accessed 10 September 2021. 
[4] “Phuket Sandbox program first step toward planned reopening of Thailand: PM” (1 July 2021) online: Xin Hua <>, accessed 10 September 2021. 
[5] See “What countries/territories am I allowed to travel to Thailand from?” in Phuket Sandbox FAQs (Updated) (26 August 2021) online: TAT News <>, accessed 10 September 2021. The person must have spent at least 21 days in these countries or territories before arriving to Phuket on a direct flight.
[6] “General Information – Phuket Sandbox” (27 August 2021) online: TAT News <>, accessed 10 September 2021. 
[7] “ONLY SHA Plus+ certified hotels!” online: Thailand Safety and Health Administration <>, accessed 10 September 2021. 
[8] General Information – Phuket Sandbox, see supra note 6. 
[9] Referred to as the DMHTTA precautions: D – Distancing, M – Mask wearing, H – Handwashing, T – Temperature check, T – Testing for COVID-19, and A – alert application; see “If I test negative, can I travel freely around Phuket?” in Phuket Sandbox FAQs (Updated) (26 August 2021) online: TAT News <>, accessed 10 September 2021. 
[10] If I test negative, can I travel freely around Phuket?, ibid.
[11] “General Information – Phuket Sandbox 7+7 Extension (Updated)” (27 August 2021) online: TAT News <>,  accessed 10 September 2021. 
[12] General Information – Phuket Sandbox, see supra note 6. 
[13] Ibid. 
[14] “Phuket sandbox scheme for Covid-19 not quite the resounding success as expected” (2 September 2021) online: The Straits Times <>, accessed 10 September 2021. 
[15] “Bali delays tourism reopening again” (6 July 2021) online: TD <>, accessed 10 September 2021. 
[16] Khairy Mulls Langkawi Vaccination For Tourism Sandbox Model” (8 April 2021) online: Code Blue <>, accessed 10 September 2021. 
[17] “Vietnamese tourism strives to reopen for business” (3 August 2021) online: Vietnam Investment Review <>, accessed 10 September 2021. 
[18] 1st M-ATM Joint Press Statement, 28 January 1998, Cebu, Philippines, s2.
[19] Ministerial Understanding on ASEAN Cooperation on Tourism, adopted 10 January 1998, , Art.2, online: ASEAN <>, accessed 10 September 2021. 
[20] 24th  M-ATM Joint Media Statement, 4 February 2021, Virtual Meeting.
[21] ASEAN Declaration on an ASEAN Travel Corridor Arrangement Framework, adopted at the 37th ASEAN Summit, 11 November 2020.
[22] Ibid., 1.
[23] 24th  M-ATM Joint Media Statement, supra note 20, s7.
[24] See Status of COVID-19 Vaccines within WHO EUL/PQ evaluation process (19 August 2021), online: WHO <>,  accessed 10 September 2021.   
[25] ASEAN Framework Agreement on Visa Exemption, adopted at the 39th AMM, 25 July 2006, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
[26] The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN): The EU’s partner in Asia? Briefing of the
European Parliamentary Research Service (November 2020) online: European Parliament <>,  accessed 10 September 2021. 
[27] ASEAN Tourism Agreement, 8th ASEAN Summit, 4 November 2001, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Art. 3(3).
[28] ASEAN Declaration on Cruise Tourism by ASEAN Tourism Ministers, adopted a the 21st M-ATM, 25th January 2018, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
[29] 24th  M-ATM Joint Media Statement, supra note 20, s18.