Phuket, Thailand — Three months ago, Thailand was a big fanfare, starting a revival of the important tourism industry by allowing visitors who follow the strict Covid-19 protocol to roam the resort island of Phuket freely. We have started a campaign to do so.
The so-called Phuket Sandbox Program has effectively transformed Thailand’s largest island into a quarantine zone for fully vaccinated and negative test results for foreign tourists. If they remained negative for 7 days, they could visit certain other islands. After 14 days, they could go anywhere in Thailand.
In about three months, the campaign attracted about 41,000 people, well below the government’s target of 100,000 in the first 90 days. Many were not tourists, but residents returning from abroad. According to industry groups, Phuket had about 10 million international visitors in 2019.
Nonetheless, hotel operators and small business owners have stated that the program has helped the devastated local economy, and other Southeast Asian countries with resort islands are considering mimicking it.
Kanyafak Lertjarapong, who sells tour packages in Patong, a beach town in the heart of Phuket’s usually noisy party scene, said, “Sandboxes are much better than nothing, at least because they have employees to work again. I think. ” “At least they have some income.”
Indonesian tourism minister Sandiaga Uno told reporters last week that a similar program could be designed in Bali, Indonesia’s largest tourist destination. Bali has recently seen a decline in Covid cases, and Indonesia hopes to open it up to foreign visitors as early as this month.
“Currently the situation in Bali is getting better and we are discussing whether to adopt it,” said Sandiaga.
Last year, Thailand was a leader in containing the coronavirus epidemic. However, vaccine procurement has been slow and has been overwhelmed by Delta variants since the middle of this year.
In mid-August, 23,400 infections per day peaked, with an average of over 10,000 new cases per day over the past week. The government is trying to contain the virus, but is trying to bring it back to life in the tourism industry, which accounted for one-fifth of the pre-pandemic Thai economy.
On Friday, some restrictions were relaxed for Bangkok and other hit areas. The curfew was postponed to 10 pm, an hour later, and the fitness center, beauty salon, massage parlor, tattoo parlor, library, museum and cinema were reopened.
In Phuket, some of the rules of the program have also been relaxed, and authorities hope this will lead to more visitors. On Friday, the maximum length of stay on the island was reduced from 14 to 7 days. Only two Covid tests are required in the meantime, welcoming visitors vaccinated from any country, not just from places considered low risk. And the restaurants in Phuket can sell alcohol again.
In Paton, the once noisy streets have been largely abandoned for months. An enterprising vendor is hijacking the streets of an empty nightclub to sell fruits, clothing and other merchandise.
But Friday night, street life seems to be back. The bar was still forbidden to serve alcohol, but some did so anyway and sold it to customers in paper or plastic cups.
Tour package seller Kanyafak said some visitors have been disappointed that Patong’s nightclubs and many other businesses have been closed since the Phuket program began.
“They came to Phuket hoping that everything would be the same and shops, restaurants and bars would open,” Kanyafak said. “But in reality, not all stores are open. Maybe only 20 percent are back in business.”
However, she said she hopes that the business is slowly growing with the influx of visitors and that recent changes will lead to more.
Phuket has its own international airport, which is connected to mainland Thailand by a single bridge. This allows you to screen all travelers, whether they arrive by road or by plane.
Authorities acknowledge that the complex application process of the Phuket Sandbox is a deterrent. Visitors are required to submit a number of documents, prepaid for coronavirus testing, and provide proof of Covid insurance. Others may be wary of the need to install apps on their mobile phones that allow health officials to track their movements.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-Ocha promised to improve the application process in a Facebook post on Friday. He called the program a success and said it would be expanded, adding that it did not help spread Covid to Phuket. About 125 Sandbox visitors tested positive.
Another problem with this program is that travelers who test positive or travel with people who test positive are transferred from the hotel to a medical facility and quarantined at their own expense for up to 14 days. It is a policy that requires that. .. This led to forced quarantine of tourists sitting near infectious passengers during the flight to Phuket.
Other neighbors besides Indonesia are looking at Phuket’s experiments to see if something similar can work for their own needy tourism industry. Malaysia opened Langkawi Island to domestic tourists in mid-September as a first step towards accepting foreign tourists. Vietnam wanted to welcome foreign tourists to Phu Quoc Island this month, but had to postpone its opening due to a lack of vaccines.
In Thailand, where vaccine supply is limited, priority is given to inoculating people living in tourist destinations such as Phuket and another popular tourist island, Koh Samui, to accelerate resumption.
According to government statistics, more than 83% of the population in Phuket has been vaccinated twice. But many of them were Sinovac. This is a Chinese-made vaccine that is less effective against the Delta variant than other vaccines.
To remedy this, the government began giving people who received Sinovac boost immunization with the AstraZeneca vaccine, using one-fifth of the usual dose to save a limited supply.
Many of the participants in the Phuket Sandbox are not tourists, but Thai residents who have returned from overseas travel. For them, staying in Phuket was a great alternative to forced quarantine in a hotel room in Bangkok.
Anthony Lark, chairman of the Phuket Hotel Association, called the program “an absolute lifeline not only for hotels and hotel owners, but for thousands of staff who earn only tourism.”
In Phuket Town, the capital of the island, colorful 19th-century shophouses have long attracted visitors to the historic Old Town district. The business collapsed during the pandemic, but is slowly returning, said Piangpen Thampradit, owner of the Phuketique Coffee Bar.
“My customers who rely on tourism can run their business and we can see the money circulating,” she said.
Large resort hotels are one of the biggest beneficiaries of the program, but some small business owners say they haven’t enjoyed many of the benefits yet. Pianpen, who closed one of the two stores due to a shortage of customers, said his initial expectations were low, but now he has more hope.
“I’m optimistic about this program,” she said. “It’s much better than doing nothing. It will take some time for us small businesses to enjoy the benefits. We are waiting for that time.”
Muktita Suhartono contributed reports from Bangkok, Adam Dean from Phuket, and Dera Menra Sijabat from Bali, Indonesia.