Coronavirus rages in Thailand, but Phuket has turned into a fortress for vaccinated tourists



Thailand’s largest island, Phuket, will open tomorrow to foreign tourists, but only to those who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and come from countries deemed to be at low to medium risk.

Incoming travelers will not be required to do 14 days of hotel quarantine, but must remain on the island for fifteen days before being allowed to travel to other parts of Thailand if they wish.

The reopening comes as Thailand experiences its third and deadliest wave of coronavirus to date, but Phuket has attempted to erect itself as a fortress to protect its people and visitors.

More than 75% of the island’s population has been vaccinated, compared to just 3.6% of the rest of the country.

There will be strict rules for entering Phuket from other parts of Thailand, where new infections exceed 4,000 one day this week.

The Southeast Asian nation is placing its hopes in the pilot program, known as the Phuket Sandbox, to start reviving its inbound tourism industry, which was wiped out during the pandemic.

The island would typically welcome around 10 million international visitors a year, but when Thailand imposed strict border restrictions over a year ago, that number fell to zero.

How Phuket Sandbox will work

Getting fully vaccinated at least 14 days before arriving on the island is the first of several steps foreigners will need to take.

Phuket’s empty swimming pools may soon be populated with tourists again, but only if they are fully vaccinated. (

Reuters: Jorge Silva

)

They will also need to apply for an entry certificate, test negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours of departure, wear masks in public, have travel insurance worth $ 132,000, be tested three times in Phuket. and download a mobile phone application. for contact tracing purposes.

Visitors must arrive on direct flights and stay in approved hotels, but are allowed free movement around the island after their first negative test.

After the 14 days in Phuket, they can then travel to other parts of Thailand.

They can also choose to stay on the island for less than two weeks before returning home.

On the eve of the big experience, tourism operators on Thailand’s largest island are eagerly awaiting the return of business, but managing their expectations.

Will Australians ever be welcome?

Final government approval for the “Phuket Sandbox” program only arrived this week, giving potential visitors short notice to confirm provisional airline bookings.

A drone shot of a man walking along an empty beach
Tourists visiting Phuket will have to adhere to strict regulations aimed at preventing an outbreak.

The Thai government reports that around 400 foreign travelers are expected to land at Phuket International Airport tomorrow, on flights from the Middle East, Singapore and Israel.

Another 500 people are expected on July 2 and around 9,000 by the end of July.

In pre-pandemic times, Thailand was one of the most popular international destinations for Australians, but with the border still closed for holiday travel, it will remain off-limits for now.

The Phuket Tourist Association hopes Australians will be included in the not-too-distant future.

“We respect the decisions of the Australian government to protect its citizens,” said the chairman of the Phuket Tourist Association, Bhummikitti Ruktaengam.

“However, if Phuket proves its worth – that we can receive and welcome international travelers without any illness – we should start to consider negotiating area by area.”

The Risks and Rewards for Phuket Residents

Over 400,000 people live on the island and they each had to do their part to make Phuket Sandbox a reality.

A woman sits in a chair while a nurse holds a needle over her shoulder
Almost all of the eligible residents of Phuket have received the vaccine. (

Reuters: Jorge Silva

)

A mass vaccination campaign began earlier this year to provide Sinovac and AstraZeneca vaccines to at least 75 percent of the population – essentially all adults – in an effort to achieve herd immunity.

“Tourists are vaccinated, we are vaccinated, in theory that should be fine,” Ruktaengam said.

“But of course there [are] some concerns with the new variants to come.

“It’s kind of a new balance between controlling the pandemic and economic activities.”

Theerasak Pholngam, owner of Tu Kab Khao restaurant in Old Phuket Town, told the ABC that he was okay with trying to strike that balance, but also felt nervous.

Thai man in shiny shirt and face mask stands in hotel lobby
“I keep my fingers crossed and say to the gods please let’s be okay,” restaurant owner Theerasak Pholngam said. (

ABC News: Steve Sandford

)

“I think it’s a good idea to reopen Phuket, don’t get me wrong, but behind this good idea lies the concern,” he said.

“What if we got a lot of tourists who’ve caught COVID-19? Would we have [to] close the city again?

“I cross my fingers and tell the gods please, please let everything be alright.”

Thai health officials have warned the program could be suspended if coronavirus infections in Phuket exceed 90 cases per week.

They are currently single digits.

Acharawan Boonyasirivat, owner of Sansabai Massage in Patong Beach and the Old Town, said she believes tour operators and tourists should feel safe when the island reopens.

Thai woman in facial mask wipes pedicure chair
Acharawan Boonyasirivat staff will wear masks and maintain strict hygiene standards to prevent the spread of the virus. (

ABC News: Steve Sandford

)

“We are already vaccinated so our concern is a little less, but we are not negligent, we will still keep our hygiene standards,” she said.

“Hope is important to us in times of crisis”

Phuket Sandbox cannot arrive early enough that many of the islanders depend on tourism to survive.

Resort owner and Thai Hotels Association chairman of the southern region, Kongsak Koopongsakorn, told the ABC it had been “very difficult” during the pandemic.

“Every day we have to use our savings money to try to keep staff employed, to keep our beloved staff and survive together,” Mr. Koopongsakorn said.

As he showed the ABCs around the beachside pool deck at the Vijitt Resort, which has been in his family for 30 years, there were only four guests to enjoy the serenity.

Mr Koopongsakorn said things are improving with the return of foreign tourists soon, but he knows it will be a trickle and not a flood.

Thai man in facial mask holds cocktail served in coconut shell
Kongsak Koopongsakorn, southern region president of the Thai Hotels Association, said the coronavirus had pushed Phuket’s economy to the brink of collapse. (

ABC News: Mazoe Ford

)

“[For July] we currently have 13% occupancy, which is much better than before, ”he said.

“I think we can get maybe 10% more back for July, so if we end up at 20% at the end of the month, that will be a very good start.”

But for the first time in a long time, the people of Phuket have hope.

“The reopening of Phuket is not just about the economy, it is about giving hope to people, especially those who make a living from tourism,” Ruktaengam said.

“I look at their eyes when we start talking about reopening and what I see is not just that they want more money, but they have more hope and I think hope is important for them. us in this crisis. “

Several people are walking on a beach at sunrise
The people of Phuket have had the island to themselves for over a year, but will soon welcome foreign tourists again. (

Reuters: Jorge Silva

)


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