Updated: Jan 18
Thailand has long been established as one the premier tourist destinations worldwide, with a rich and vibrant history and colourful culture that appeals to all. Visitors are welcomed with a wide array of activities to immerse themselves in, be it relaxing on the stunning beaches, snorkelling or diving in the crystal-clear ocean waters, trekking through picturesque mountains, indulging in the sumptuous cuisine or pampering in a 5-star spa resort. All served with the inimitable Thai hospitality that gave the country its moniker of “Land of Smiles”.
Phuket has very much been the jewel in Thailand’s crown for several decades, welcoming millions of tourists each year from all over the globe. In 2019, the tropical island paradise was voted 14th in Mastercard’s list of “Global Destination Cities Index” (Bangkok was ranked first). It has something for everyone and has become an increasingly popular destination for young and old alike.
Beautiful beaches, outdoor activities galore, five-star international resorts and charming boutique hideways, bustling markets and festivals, magnificent and curious wildlife, delicious food and extensive entertainment options, Phuket literally has it all.
That was until the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic struck early last year.
As most countries closed their borders and denied inbound and outbound international travel, the tourist numbers into Phuket dried up completely. Thailand itself closed its borders and implemented a range of rules and restrictions aimed at combating both the importation and subsequent spread of the disease. The tourism industry which Thailand is so dependent on was left decimated, something experienced no more rudely than in Phuket where it annually accounts for 90% of the island’s revenue.
In Phuket, local district lockdowns were implemented, schools were closed and all entertainment venues including bars, pubs, clubs, restaurants, massage parlours, cinemas, and sporting venues were shuttered for extended periods of time. The once bustling nightlife hub of Patong very quickly became a ghost town as did all other popular spots which were previously habitually populated by international guests.
With little support from the government, people suffered in a big way. Many who had lost their jobs and therefore their income stream decided to return to their home provinces, prompting a mass exodus from the island. It is estimated in May 2020 alone that over 40,000 people departed, approximately 8% of the island’s total population.
Businesses were closing in every direction you turned. Life savings were ravaged if not completely depleted. People were struggling for food and bare essentials prompting a host of charity projects, largely initiated and driven by the expatriate community, that sought to raise funds to acquire basic goods and food that were then distributed among local villages. Most tragically, suicide rates increased dramatically with a unnerving number of people pushed beyond despair.
The central government in Bangkok came under heavy criticism with many claiming they bumbled their way from one haphazard policy to the next, dumbfounding many with what was perceived to be poorly thought-out and ill-advised decisions. Even more perplexing was the penchant to constantly reverse these decisions with the continual flip-flopping leaving baffled.
The policy on vaccine acquisition and distribution was equally criticised as limited doses of the much-maligned Chinese-manufactured SinoVac were eventually secured, then the British-Swedish AstraZeneca vaccine, and both offered as a solution although the quantity was not there, not to mention the quality or the option of choice for people.
At time of writing, approximately 10% of the national population of 66 million had been vaccinated. In Phuket it was decided 70% of the resident population needed to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity against at least the initial strain of the virus, which equated to 466,587 people. At time of press, this number had not been achieved.
Amongst all the confusion, Phuket was pinpointed as a priority destination in the process of reopening the country to international tourists and the “Phuket Sandbox” scheme was born.
Phuket would lead the way for the rest of the nation by allowing visitors from “low- or medium-risk” countries to enter the province without any need for quarantine. It would be a gradual process to test the waters that, if successful, would be emulated across the rest of the country as the government strived towards a national reopening date of October 1st.
However, there would be a shopping list of conditions any visitor coming in would need to comply with. First and foremost this includes proof of being fully vaccinated and being able to produce receipt of a negative COVID test not more than 72 hours prior to arrival.