Tourists arrive as COVID cases in Thailand rise

BANGKOK – A week after the start of an ambitious but risky plan to open up Thailand’s resort island of Phuket to vaccinated visitors, encouraging signs were showing that the gamble to resuscitate the decimated tourism industry was working, even as infections elsewhere in the country hit records on Thursday.

After welcoming less than 5,000 foreign travelers in the first five months of the year, the island off the southwest coast of Thailand, whose economy is 95% dependent on the tourism industry, has welcomed 2,399 visitors during the first week of July.

Phuket’s so-called sandbox plan hinges on a strategy of vaccinations, testing and restrictions – measures authorities hope are stringent enough to mitigate any COVID-19 threat, while still providing enough freedom for tourists to enjoy. beach vacation.

In the week before the sandbox started on July 1, Phuket saw 17 new cases of the coronavirus. The numbers climbed in the first week, but remained low at 27 new cases.

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At the same time, Thailand as a whole has seen a spike in infections, with a record 7,058 cases reported on Thursday with 75 deaths, which has made many skeptical that Phuket will continue to reopen at this time.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has been personally criticized for his handling of the wave, and political cartoons have shown him sitting on the beach having fun as Thais die from the virus.

Prayuth was also forced to self-isolate this week after a businessman he had been in contact with during the sandbox launch tested positive for COVID-19.

Last minute issues with the program resulted in cancellations before it even started, and the original target of 30,000 visitors for July has been reduced to 18,000. Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, President of the Phuket Tourism Association , has now said the program is in place and expects 30,000 visitors from outside Thailand in August.

There is still a long way to go to return to the 2 million foreigners that Phuket saw in the first five months of last year as the pandemic began.

“The COVID-19 situation could affect the overall picture of the country, but I think visitors will understand that Phuket is safe enough for them, so it shouldn’t affect their travel plans,” he said.

Liron Or, an Israeli tourist, decided to go to Phuket for 10 days with her husband and five children when she first heard about the sandbox three weeks ago.

They arrived on day one and she said being able to relax on vacation outweighed any mandatory precautions.

“The process is not too difficult,” she said. “And this trip brings such great joy to our children. There are not too many tourists here at the moment on the beaches.

Travelers arriving elsewhere in Thailand are subject to a strict 14-day hotel room quarantine, but as part of the sandbox plan, visitors to Phuket can roam the entire island – the largest in the country – where they are. can lounge on the beaches, jet ski and eat out. .

Visitors are only allowed from countries considered not to present a “medium” risk. So far, most have come from the United States, Britain, Germany, the United Arab Emirates and Israel.

Adult foreign visitors must provide proof of full vaccination, a negative COVID-19 test no later than 72 hours before departure, and proof of insurance that covers anti-virus treatment, among others. Once on the island, they must follow mask and distancing regulations and take three COVID-19 tests at their own expense – around $ 300 in total – and show negative results.

After 14 days, visitors can travel elsewhere in Thailand without further restrictions.

Before the start of the program, some 70% of the island’s estimated 450,000 people received at least one dose of the vaccine, and all frontline workers in restaurants, hotels and elsewhere were fully immunized.

So far, only one visitor has tested positive for the coronavirus; a man from the United Arab Emirates who was taken to hospital for treatment.

Angela Luxy Smith, a Briton who works in Qatar and who had visited Thailand regularly in the past, jumped at the chance to return.

She and her husband plan to make the most of the program, staying in Phuket for the first 14 days, then traveling to other places in Thailand, before returning to Phuket for another week to wrap up a 40-day vacation.

She and her husband were amazed at the number of restaurants open in some areas that cater more to residents, but said many remained closed on beaches more popular with tourists.

“It’s so strange, quiet and closed – so sad for a lot of people who depend on tourism,” she said. “We hope people will come back very soon.”

Phuket currently has 131,809 room nights booked for July, with 9,745 booked for August and 1,094 booked for September.

Before the pandemic, around 20% of Thailand’s economy was tied to the tourism industry, and other parts of the country are closely monitoring the Phuket experience as they seek to gradually reopen.

For Richard Van Driel Vis, his trip which began this week in Phuket was the first time he had left the Netherlands since the start of the pandemic.

He said gathering the documentation and fulfilling the travel preconditions was “difficult and stressful” but in the end “totally worth it”.

“I am sitting here in the bar looking at the beach, in good warm weather,” he said.

“It’s Phuket or stay at home, so I came here,” he said wryly.

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