Thailand bets on ‘Phuket sandbox’ program to save tourism

PHUKET, Thailand (AP) – Somsak Betlao covered the outboard motor of his traditional wooden long-tail boat with a tarp, ending another day on Patong Beach in Phuket, where no tourist needed his services to transport them to neighboring islands.

Since Thailand’s pandemic travel restrictions were imposed in early 2020, tourism has fallen off a cliff, and nowhere has it been felt more than the resort island off the south coast. of the country, where nearly 95% of the economy is linked to industry.

So, despite the increase in the number of coronaviruses elsewhere in the country, the government is moving forward with a program known as the ‘Phuket sandbox‘ to reopen the island to fully vaccinated visitors. He hopes to revive tourism – a sector that represented 20% of the country’s economy before the pandemic.

Instead of the hotel quarantines required elsewhere in Thailand, tourists to Phuket will be able to roam the entire island, but will not be able to travel to other parts of the country for 14 days. Skeptics wonder if people will be willing to accept multiple restrictions including repeated virus testing and mandatory tracking apps, but officials hope the appeal of the island’s famous beaches – and the idea of ​​a beach vacation after long lockouts – will be enough.

For islanders like Somsak, there is a lot to do when tourists return.

In the old days he could hope to make over $ 100 a day by taking them on his boat, but this month he only brought home $ 40 to a single client and was forced to do odd jobs, to pledge family assets and to fish for food for dinner. on the table for his wife and two young children.

“If that doesn’t work, we’ll just have to try to stay alive,” Somsak said.

The first two months of 2020, before travel restrictions were put in place, were among the best on record in Phuket, and the island welcomed more than 3 million visitors in the first five months of the year, including more than 2 million foreigners. In the first five months of 2021, there were less than half a million visitors, and all but about 5,000 were domestic travelers.

As part of the sandbox plan, visitors to Phuket will be subjected to many of the same checks as those in the rest of the country, but instead of being quarantined in a carefully guarded hotel room for 14 days, they will be limited to the largest island in Thailand. , where they can lounge on the white sandy beaches, jet ski off the coast and enjoy dining out evenings.

“For people who have been locked in their apartments for 16 months, the idea of ​​flying to Thailand where there is a beach and you are a normal guest, yes you are quarantined here but it is over. 500 square kilometers of quarantine and you have national parks, golf courses, you can scuba dive – it’s really not quarantine, ”said Anthony Lark, president of the Phuket Hotels Association.

There is already some international interest, with the first flight from Qatar, followed by a flight from Israel and then Singapore.

Still, some hotels and other businesses have decided to wait and see if tourists show up before reopening, and there is skepticism in Thailand about what they will.

The Bangkok Post wondered in an op-ed this week titled “Welcome to your prison vacation?” whether tourists would bother going through all the hoops for a vacation, especially after the government announced it would impose further restrictions if more than 90 new cases of the virus are reported per week in Phuket.

Lark said he expected many travelers would take a wait-and-see approach and that his expectations were “lukewarm”.

“The floodgates are not opening,” he said.

To visit, adult foreign visitors must provide proof of two vaccinations, a negative COVID-19 test no later than 72 hours before departure and proof of an insurance policy covering treatment against the virus of at least 100 $ 000, among others. Once on the island, visitors must follow mask and distancing rules and take three COVID-19 tests at their own expense – around $ 300 in total – and show negative results.

They must also come from countries considered not to pose a “low” or “medium” risk – a list currently comprising most of Europe, the United States and Canada – and fly directly to Phuket, although plans are underway to allow carefully controlled transfers. by Bangkok airport.

After 14 days, visitors are free to travel further to Thailand without further restrictions.

In preparation, some 70% of the island’s estimated 450,000 people have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and the hospitality industry reports that all frontline workers in restaurants, hotels and elsewhere have been fully immunized.

Bars and clubs remain closed, but visitors will be able to go to restaurants and catch shows – once they are up and running again.

At the Phuket Simon Cabaret, a 600-seat venue closed for more than a year, a team returned this week to start checking on lighting and other systems, as workers makeover the dresses worn by its transgender dancers, sewing new sequins. and colorful feathers.

“We come into this fight wanting to win,” owner Pornthep Rouyrin said defiantly, adding that the cabaret would not open immediately and its dancers could start with smaller shows in hotels and restaurants until that more tourists are starting to arrive.

The Phuket sandbox is largely part of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s plan announced earlier this month to fully reopen Thailand within 120 days.

Polls suggest that around 75% of Thais find it too ambitious, and in recent days the number of coronaviruses has increased in Bangkok and elsewhere, highlighting concerns when Phuket must be reopened.

Other Thai destinations are watching Phuket closely, with their own plans to open later in the year or earlier, but with some degree of initial hotel room quarantine. Regionally, popular tourist destinations such as Bali are also watching the sandbox as they consider whether to accommodate outside visitors.

Nationally, the hospitality industry had hoped the sandbox would provide a stepping stone to other destinations in Thailand when early talks implied a shorter mandatory stay, but now it’s 14 days, the industry concedes that few are likely to have the vacation time to go on.

At the same time, there are fears that returning Thai residents will pass through Phuket to take advantage of the more lax rules, with more emphasis on Bangkok hotels, which have relied on mandatory two-week quarantines for much of it. their income during the pandemic, said Marisa Sukosol, president of the Thai Hotel Association.

About half of Thailand’s 16,000 hotels are still closed and occupancy rates were on average only 6% in May, she said.

“We’re in survival mode and hanging on by a thread – literally,” she said earlier this month.

While there are restrictions and it may take time to resolve reopening issues, the upside is that visitors will be greeted by a Phuket that has not been seen in decades, due to the lack of people over the past year, Lark said.

“I even saw sea otters on the beach and didn’t even know there were sea otters here. Saw pods of dolphins, we noticed an increased diversity of bird species, the coral reefs didn’t have boats above them – the island has never looked so beautiful ” , did he declare. “And the room rates are around half of 2019 and you never need to make a reservation to get a restaurant seat. It’s a great time to come.


Increase reported from Bangkok. Associated Press writer Chalida Ekvittayavechnukul in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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