A new superyacht quarantine programme has been launched in Thailand, coinciding with the country’s easing of charter restrictions. Now could be the perfect time to explore…
Towering cliffs cutting through pristine waters, white sand beaches and verdant rainforests shrouding ancient temples; the Edenic landscape of Thailand has plenty to offer superyachts sailing the Andaman Sea. But in 2020, the Southeast Asian paradise, which in recent years has seen almost 40 million tourists arrive in the country a year, was suddenly and strictly closed to the rest of the world to protect local populations from the spread of COVID-19.
There were advantages and disadvantages to the situation, as Adam Frost, founder of Phuket-based agency Seal Superyachts, explains. “The government have done very well to protect the population from an explosion of epidemic. But at the same time, it's really killed the tourism industry.”
Now that Thailand’s tourism is on the path to recovery, the government is welcoming foreign-flagged superyachts under special restrictions.
The superyacht quarantine plan falls under the wider Alternative State Quarantine (ASQ) programme introduced in early 2021 to safely welcome tourists into the country. Quarantine options for travellers include accommodations in five-star hotels, golf resorts and wellness centres. Unusually, yacht owners and crew can undertake their quarantine on board too. “Opening up superyachting is important for the government. They see it as one of their flagship tourism activities,” says Frost.
To visit the country, owners need to apply for a certificate of entry and a special tourist visa through a local agent– specifically one that is certified as a member of the Thai Yachting Business Association (TYBA), such as Frost. The yacht will have to anchor in a designated area for 14 days and those on board will be tested for COVID three times; on the first day, the seventh day and on the final day.
The two designated anchorages are in Phuket and Pattaya; Ao Por in Paklok for entries from the Gulf of Thailand in the east and The Ocean Marine Yacht Club in Chonburi for those arriving from the Andaman Sea to the west. Once tests have come back clear, participants are free to roam the country without any restrictions.
But playing by the rules is taken seriously. To ensure no risk of transmission from new arrivals, those on board are forbidden from leaving the boat during the quarantine – even for a swim in the water. The yacht is not allowed to move more than 500 metres from the designated anchorage. Those on board will also have to wear a special wristband to monitor their movements and the only people allowed onto the yacht are members of the medical team. “There’s a navy boat out there watching them, so they’re strictly monitored,” says Frost. This method of entering the country is therefore best suited to yachts with on-board amenities designed for long periods at sea.
For owners planning an extended trip in Thailand, the quarantine could be worth it as it offers the first opportunity to return to the picture-perfect cruising grounds since the pandemic began. “It’s a very nice place to chill out for a few months,” says Frost.
Matthew Nagara, chairman of TYBA, says the programme is already helping to encourage yachts back into the country. “We have a lot of interest. So far, about 30 yachts have quarantined already.” In recent months, 85-metre Amatasia and 44.98-metre Latitude are just two of the superyachts that have entered the country to enjoy the quieter-than-usual cruising grounds to themselves.
Latitude's owner Anil Thadani revealed that the Thai embassy in Singapore helped his yacht cross the border, and that the crew's on-board quarantine experience was relatively smooth sailing. "It was all very well organised - medical personnel went on board to conduct COVID-19 tests, food was provided and they even had regular scheduled garbage collection." he explains. Thadani himself undertook quarantine at the Anantara Mai Khao hotel, which he said "was not much of a hardship."
The quarantine programme is just one short-term step forward for the Thai superyacht industry. On a wider scale, the country has also eased charter restrictions.
Previously, charters could only be organised on local vessels. Foreign-flagged charter yachts could visit Thailand, but only as part of a multi-country itinerary. Now, these restrictions have been dropped and foreign-flagged charter yachts are allowed to stay in the country much longer.
“This is great news for the larger yachts that are looking to do commercial charters,” says Frost. He adds that brokers now “have a lot more confidence to promote Thailand as a charter destination.” He predicts the charter industry in Thailand to “boom” in 2022. Nagara agrees, “I think a lot more yachts are going to be coming into Thailand.”
These amended regulations, combined with the government’s forward-thinking approach to tackling quarantine, are a reflection of Thailand’s efforts to up its game as a charter destination.
Regions like Phuket have been growing as a superyacht hub for years but, according to Frost, now is a better time to visit than before. “The main reason has to be the serenity of the place, as there’s very little tourism here at the moment. Yachts can go cruising as it was 30 years ago, where there's literally no one out on the water.”
Superyacht owner Thadani, who has been cruising Phuket's waters since 1988, echoes Frost's comments: "It is extremely quiet here and actually, it has been absolutely beautiful to experience these islands, beaches and dive spots without the usual rush of tourists." After exploring areas like the Similan Islands for a couple of months, Latitude will return to Singapore as the weather changes and the Thai season comes to a close in late spring.
Nagara adds that because of the extended lockdown “many of the islands have become very pristine," and implores that owners make their arrangements to visit next season, which will re-commence after summer; "It's really a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see it like this, before the tourists come back.”