Before the pandemic, the Thai island of Phuket offered visitors the perfect blend of sun, beach and seedy but fun nightlife as one of the region’s best-known tourist destinations. Now it offers visitors something much newer: a vacation without quarantine.
Starting in early July, fully vaccinated visitors from some countries can fly straight to Phuket and go straight from the tarmac to the beach. Spend 14 full days there and visitors (or knowledgeable Thai nationals) are invited to continue their trip to Thailand, effectively spending their quarantine period in a resort under a program called the “Phuket sandbox”.
The program is not without controversy. Fears about the safety of communities in Phuket, along with cynical assumptions that few people would accept the confusing and expensive offer, marred the program in its first few weeks. Still, if all goes well, expect to see other vacation favorites like Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, and Koh Tao accessible soon after.
Thailand was the first country outside of China to register a case of Covid-19 which saw tourism stop in the first two months of 2020.
Thailand was the first country outside of China to register a case of Covid-19 which, coupled with massive cancellations of Chinese visitor travel, saw tourism stop in the first two months of 2020. The sharp and sudden drop in the number of visitors figures, then possible gradual closures broke the country, where tourism accounts for about 12% of GDP.
The delicate balance between the economic imperative and public health has been revealing to governments around the world. In Thailand, that balance seemed hopeless as the government decided to open up anything – anything, anywhere – to tourism.
Phuket is a natural choice. With a long-standing reputation as one of Thailand’s top resort islands, Phuket has the infrastructure, especially an international airport, to support the program. And as one of the provinces most dependent on visitors in a country already vulnerable to the vagaries of tourism, it is among the most desperate.
For the half-million inhabitants of Phuket, the “sandbox” is a double-edged sword. The tourism industry has been all but destroyed by a year without visitors, but public health is also paramount. The Bangkok government promised that the plan would not go until the community reached 70 percent immunization by the July 1 launch, which ultimately failed – but only slightly. The province has been plagued by the same problems as the mainland in terms of securing vaccine stocks and navigating complicated online systems. However, the vaccination program will continue in parallel with the opening of the sandbox.
Full vaccination cannot come soon enough. At least six tourists have tested positive for Covid-19 after arriving on the island as part of the sandbox program. One of the first to be identified was a visitor from the United Arab Emirates who had taken the test as part of the requirements upon arrival. The drivers and hotel staff who had come into contact with the man were placed in segregation. Health officials confirmed that the tourist was fully vaccinated with the Sinopharm vaccine.
“Worry more about domestic arrivalsProvincial Chief Medical Officer Kusak Kukiattikoon told local media. His direct words refer to the growing catastrophe on the continent, with new daily death record as the Delta variant surges across the country. Further restrictions are expected imminently, including restrictions on interprovincial travel – essentially ending the near quarantine in Phuket before going elsewhere.
Ironically, the Phuket sandbox launch may have turned into a broadcast event for the Bangkok political elite who attended. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who proudly attended the launch on the island, isolated himself after a participant has tested positive. Spokesmen for the prime minister’s office reassure him that he has so far tested negative and will continue his work as usual.
He may well use this time to convey the idea of the sandbox to other leaders in the region. Like the planned travel bubbles, like the one in between Singapore and Australia, collapsing under the weight of new cases and unstable vaccination schedules, the sandbox could become an option for other tourist-friendly Southeast Asian countries.
“The sandbox is more than just for Phuket or Thailand. This paves the way for other Asian countries, ”said tourism mogul Ho Kwon Ping. Told Bloomberg. He highlighted other possible places such as the Chinese province of Hainan, the islands of Vietnam or even Bali in Indonesia. It may be too ambitious at the moment, but it shows that an industry is pivoting towards creative ideas that recognize the pandemic is far from over.
By the end of the year, Phuket expects to have welcomed 100,000 visitors. A long cry from the past 10 million years, but a respectable start for a devastated community struggling to return.