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.
A Certificate Of Entry (COE) would need to be acquired from a Thai embassy in the travellers home country and medical insurance cover of a minimum US$100,000 required.
On arrival, tourists would be required to undergo health screening including a COVID RT-PCR test which they will pay for. Two further tests would be administered during the first 10 days. Tourists who are younger than 18-years-old and unable to be vaccinated must be RT-PCR tested before coming.
Additionally, visitors must download and operate a tracking app that would follow movements at all times when on the island.
All travellers would only be permitted to stay in a hotel approved by the Safety & Health Administration (SHA) for the first seven nights, which needs to be paid for in advance. Tourists are not permitted to leave the island and venture into other parts of Thailand before 14 days has passed.
Critics argue the conditions are over kill, advocates counter that it is an inevitable and necessary requirement when trying to establish a balance to allow borders to reopen whilst doing everything possible to safeguard public safety and wellbeing.
Whichever perspective one adopted, it was widely agreed that something had to be done to halt Phuket, and in turn the country, sliding backwards at an alarming rate.
The Phuket Sandbox launched on July 1 to much fanfare. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha flew down from Bangkok to personally inaugurate the occasion and the first international flight arriving from Abu Dhabi was welcomed with a water fountain and its 25 passengers greeted with warm applause from airport staff.
Phuket residents “should be proud of their mission for the country,” said the Prime Minister as he waved goodbye to the island after his visit.
“The Phuket Sandbox is not only a matter for Phuket residents,” he added. “It’s about the people of the whole nation, so that the country can move forward in accordance with the mission of re-opening borders in 120 days.”
Prayut stressed that whilst he felt confident there was also a need to exercise caution, stating the reopening “must be done carefully and we must accept the risks together”.
Flights from Paris, London, Frankfurt and Singapore all arrived across the opening weekend and the official figures state just over 2,000 tourists arrived in the first week of the project. Of course this is nowhere even remotely close to the pre-pandemic figures but it is, at least, a start.
However, any celebrations were largely muted very quickly after it was confirmed one of the visiting delegation in the Prime Minister’s party tested positive for COVID-19, sending the nation’s top official into a self-imposed 14-day quarantine. Not a good look.
The following day it was confirmed that a passenger arriving into Phuket on a flight from the UAE tested positive for COVID-19 and was taken into hospital to quarantine. It was the last thing the authorities needed and a sobering reminder of how frail the much lauded project may be.
Authorities have stated that if more than 90 cases of infection are recorded in one week on the island then the Sandbox project will be abandoned and widespread restrictions will come into use. Even as numbers of inbound tourists continue to rise, it is highly unlikely this scenario will become a reality but news of the double setback left many people apprehensive.
Phuket has very much taken on the role of guinea pig for the rest of the country, indeed for much of the region if not world, in taking the tentative steps to reopen its borders and try to edge towards a semblance of normality. The Phuket Sandbox is a test project with inherent risks but is something where the potential rewards seem to outweigh the negatives – in fact it is not misplaced to state there is little or no choice but to burden the risk and soldier on head first.
Critics argue it is prioritising economics and profit over health and well-being but the reality is there is no choice; a destination that relies so heavily on one commodity to operate and survive finds itself in a cruel Catch-22 scenario.
Roll the dice
It is for this very fact that Phuket should be recognised and applauded. The island’s residents, the everyday people that make the place what it is possess tremendous resolve, resilience and bravery. They have accepted the fact that there is little choice and are willing to roll the dice. They simply have to.
The cold hard facts are that COVID is here to stay. Any country setting a target of zero cases is desperately clambering at a mythical ambition. The reality is we have to move forward, mitigating any serious threats the disease poses as best we can, but not allowing it to halt proceedings to the devastating extent it has in the last 18 months.
Phuket is trying to do exactly that and, again, should be lauded for its efforts. Sure, there will be speed bumps along the way, but the very fact it is trying is admirable. Someone has to be brave, to go first and take that step into uncharted territory.
Hopefully people will acknowledge this fact and not be deterred from visiting Phuket in future. One day soon, once the right balance has been achieved, the island will be welcoming back people from all over the world to savour all the wonderful offerings it has to offer.
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