PHUKET, Thailand – Three months ago, with great fanfare, Thailand launched a campaign to revive its crucial tourism industry by allowing visitors who follow strict Covid-19 protocols to roam freely on the resort island of Phuket.
The so-called Phuket Sandbox program has effectively turned Thailand’s largest island into a quarantine area for foreign tourists who have been fully vaccinated and tested negative. If they continued to be negative for seven days, they could visit some other islands; after 14 days they could go anywhere in Thailand.
About three months later, the campaign attracted around 41,000 people, well below the government’s target of 100,000 in the first 90 days. Many were returning residents from abroad, not tourists. Phuket welcomed nearly 10 million international visitors in 2019, according to industry groups.
Still, hoteliers and small business owners say the program has helped the ravaged local economy, and other Southeast Asian countries with resort islands are planning to emulate it.
“I see the sandbox much better than nothing because at least there are employees working again,” said Kanyaphak Lertjaraspong, who sells tourist packages to Patong, a beach town at the heart of the party scene. normally rowdy in Phuket. âAt least they have an income. “
Indonesian Tourism Minister Sandiaga Uno told reporters last week that a similar program could be designed for the island of Bali, Indonesia’s largest tourist site. Bali has seen a recent drop in Covid cases, and Indonesia hopes to open it up to foreign visitors as early as this month.
“With the best situation now in Bali, we are discussing whether to adopt this,” Sandiaga said.
Thailand was a leader in containing the spread of the coronavirus last year. But he’s been slow to get hold of vaccines, and he’s been overwhelmed by the Delta variant since the middle of this year.
It peaked at 23,400 daily infections in mid-August and has averaged more than 10,000 new cases a day over the past week. Even as the government tries to contain the virus, it is trying to revive tourism, which made up up to a fifth of Thailand’s economy before the pandemic.
On Friday, some restrictions were relaxed for Bangkok and other hard-hit areas. A curfew was pushed back by an hour, to 10 p.m., and fitness centers, beauty salons, massage and tattoo parlors, libraries, museums and cinemas were allowed to reopen.
In Phuket, some program rules have also been relaxed, which officials say will lead to more visitors. On Friday, the maximum stay required on the island was reduced to seven days, from 14. Only two Covid tests are now required during this time, and vaccinated visitors from all countries are welcome, not just places deemed low. risk. And restaurants in Phuket can sell alcohol again.
In Patong, the once noisy streets have been largely deserted for months. Enterprising vendors have invaded the facades of empty nightclubs to sell fruit, clothes or other wares.
But on Friday night, life on the streets seemed to resume. While bars are still banned from serving alcohol, some have done so anyway, selling it to patrons in paper or plastic cups.
Ms Kanyaphak, the tour operator, said that since the start of the Phuket program, some visitors have been disappointed to see Patong nightclubs and many other businesses closed.
âThey came to Phuket with the hope that everything would go back to normal, that shops, restaurants and bars would be open,â Ms. Kanyaphak said. âBut in reality, not all stores are open. I would say maybe only 20 percent are back in business.
But she said business has gradually grown with the influx of visitors and that she hopes the recent changes will lead to more.
Phuket has its own international airport and is connected to the Thai mainland by a single bridge. This allows all travelers to be filtered, whether they arrive by road or by air.
Officials admit that Phuket Sandbox‘s complicated application process was a deterrent. Visitors must submit numerous documents, prepay for coronavirus testing and provide proof of Covid insurance. Some may also be wary of having to install an app on their phone that allows health officials to track their movements.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha pledged to improve the nomination process in a Facebook post on Friday. He called the program a success and said it would be expanded, adding that it had not caused the spread of Covid in Phuket. About 125 visitors to Sandbox have tested positive.
Another issue with the program has been the policy requiring that travelers who test positive, or who are traveling with someone who tests positive, be transferred from their hotel to a health facility and kept in strict quarantine until 14 days at their expense. . This led to the mandatory quarantine of tourists who were seated near an infectious passenger on their flight to Phuket.
Neighboring countries other than Indonesia have been watching the Phuket experience to see if something similar might work for their own besieged tourism industries. Malaysia opened the island of Langkawi to domestic tourists in mid-September as a first step towards welcoming foreign visitors. Vietnam had hoped to welcome foreign tourists to Phu Quoc Island this month, but was forced to delay the opening due to a vaccine shortage.
Thailand, which also has a limited vaccine supply, has made it a priority to vaccinate people living in tourist areas like Phuket and Koh Samui, another popular tourist island, to speed up their reopening.
In Phuket, more than 83 percent of the population have received two doses of the vaccine, according to government figures. But many of them were Sinovac, the vaccine made in China that was less effective than others against the Delta variant.
To address this, the government has started giving Astra-Zeneca vaccine boosters to people who have received Sinovac, using one-fifth of the normal dose to keep the supply limited.
Many of the Phuket Sandbox attendees were not tourists, but residents of Thailand returning from overseas trips. For them, a stay in Phuket was a great alternative to the mandatory quarantine in a hotel room in Bangkok.
Anthony Lark, president of the Phuket Hotel Association, called the program “an absolute lifeline not only for hotels and hotel owners, but for thousands of employees whose only income is based on tourism.” .
In Phuket Town, the island’s provincial capital, colorful 19th-century shops have long drawn visitors to the historic Old Town district. Business there collapsed during the pandemic but is slowly coming back, said Piangpen Thampradit, owner of Phuketique Coffee Bar.
âMy clients who depend on tourism can move their businesses and we can see the money flowing,â she said.
Large resort hotels have been among the biggest beneficiaries of the program, while some small business owners say they have yet to see much benefit. Ms Piangpen, who closed one of her two stores for lack of customers, said her initial expectations were low, but she now had more hope.
“I am optimistic about the program,” she said. âIt’s much better than doing nothing. For us small businesses it will take some time to receive the benefits. We are waiting for this moment. “
Muktita Suhartono has contributed reporting from Bangkok, Adam Dean from Phuket and Dera Menra Sijabat from Bali, Indonesia.