Thailand bets on ‘Phuket sandbox’ program to save tourism

Phuket, Thailand – Somsak Betlao on his traditional wooden long-tail boat covered the outboard motor with a tarp, wrapped up another day at Phuket’s Patong beach where not a single tourist needed his services, who were locking them to the nearby islands.

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

Instead of the hotel quarantine required elsewhere in Thailand, tourists on 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 question whether people will be willing to accept a number of restrictions, including repeated virus testing and mandatory tracking apps, but officials are hopeful that the charm of the island’s famous beaches – and beach vacation after a long lockdown The idea of ​​- will suffice.

For islanders like Somsak, tourists have a lot to offer on their return.

Once he could count on earning more than $100 a day to take them to his boat, but this month he’s only taken home $40 from a single customer and forced him to do odd jobs. Gone, fish to eat for family items and fish dinner on the table for his wife and two young children.

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

The first two months of 2020, before the travel ban was imposed, were Phuket’s best ever, and the island saw 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 have been less than half a million visitors, and all except about 5,000 were domestic travelers.

Under the sandbox plan, visitors to Phuket would be subject to most of the same controls as those in the rest of the country, but would be confined to Thailand’s largest island, instead of staying in carefully monitored hotel rooms for 14 days. , where they can lounge on the white beaches, jet ski on the coast, and enjoy dinner at the restaurant in the evening.

“For those who are 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 being quarantined here but it is over 500 square kilometres. There’s quarantine and you have national parks, golf courses, you can go diving – it’s not really a quarantine,” said Anthony Lark, president of the Phuket Hotel Association.

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

Still, some hotels and other businesses have decided to wait to see if tourists show up before reopening, and Thailand doubts they will.

The Bangkok Post newspaper expressed its surprise in an editorial this week that “Welcome to your prison leave?” Will tourists bother going through all the hoops for a holiday, especially after the government announced it would impose additional restrictions on more than 90 new virus cases. Reported weekly in Phuket.

Lark said he expects many passengers to take a wait-and-see approach and that his hopes are “tepid.”

“The flood gates are not opening,” he said.

To travel, 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 that covers virus treatment of at least $100,000, among other things. covers. Once on the island, visitors have to follow mask-and-distancing rules and take three COVID-19 tests at their own expense – about $300 total – and show negative results.

They also have to come from countries that are not considered to be at “low” or “moderate” risk – a list that currently includes most of Europe, the US and Canada – and fly directly to Phuket, though with carefully controlled transfers. Plans are in the works to allow through Bangkok’s airport.

After 14 days, visitors are free to travel onward into Thailand without other restrictions.

In preparation, about 70% of the island’s approximately 450,000 residents have received at least one vaccine dose, and the hospitality industry reports that all front-line workers at restaurants, hotels and elsewhere have been fully vaccinated. has gone.

Bars and clubs remain closed, but visitors will be able to visit restaurants and attend shows – once they get up and walk again.

At the 600-seat Phuket Simon Cabaret, which has been closed for more than a year, some crews returned this week to begin testing lighting and other systems, while workers put on a new glow to the clothes worn by their transgender dancers. sewed up. and colorful feathers.

“We are entering this fight wanting to win,” said owner Pornthep Ruerin with defense, adding that the cabaret will not open immediately and its dancers can begin with small shows in hotels and restaurants unless a large number of tourists arrive. does not start.

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.

Surveys show that nearly 75% of Thais found that too ambitious, and the number of coronavirus cases rising in Bangkok and elsewhere in recent days, such as Phuket’s reopening.

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

Nationally, the hotel industry hoped that the sandbox would provide a springboard to other destinations in Thailand, when initial discussions included a less mandatory stay, but it is now 14 days when the industry recognizes that few people have access to a holiday. Time is likely to move forward.

At the same time, there are concerns that Thai residents returning home will pass through Phuket to take advantage of more lax rules, further straining Bangkok hotels, which have spent the majority of their income during the period with the mandatory two-week period. Rely on quarantine. pandemic, said Marisa Sukosol, president of the Thai Hotel Association.

He added that nearly half of Thailand’s 16,000 hotels are still closed and that the occupancy rate in May averaged only 6%.

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

Although there are restrictions and it may take time to work to reopen, the upside is that the welcome of visitors will not be seen by Phuket for decades, thanks to a lack of people over the past year, Lark said.

“I have also seen sea otters on the beach and I didn’t even know there were sea otters here. I’ve seen dolphin pods, we’ve seen an increase in bird species diversity, no boats over coral reefs – the islands have never looked better,” he said. “And room rates are about half that of 2019. And you’ll never have to make a reservation to get a restaurant seat. It’s a great time to come.”


Rising was reported from Bangkok. Associated Press writer Chalida Ekvittayvechanukul in Bangkok contributed to this report.


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Thailand bets on ‘Phuket sandbox’ program to save tourism