A week into an ambitious but risky plan to open the Thai resort island of Phuket to vaccinated visitors, signs were encouraging that the gambit to resuscitate the decimated tourism industry was working, even as infections elsewhere in the country surged Thursday to record highs.
After seeing fewer than 5,000 foreign travellers over the first five months of the year, the island off Thailand’s southwest coast, whose economy is 95% reliant on the tourist industry, welcomed 2,399 visitors during the first week of July.
The so-called Phuket sandbox plan relies on a strategy of vaccinations, testing and restrictions — measures that officials are hoping are strict enough to mitigate any COVID-19 threat, while still providing enough freedom for tourists to enjoy a beach vacation.
In the week before the sandbox started on July 1, Phuket saw 17 new cases of the coronavirus. The numbers climbed the first week, but remained low at 27 new cases.
At the same time, Thailand as a whole has seen a spike in infections, with a record 7,058 cases reported Thursday with 75 deaths, which has made many sceptical about pursuing the Phuket reopening at this time.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has come under personal fire for his handling of the surge, and political cartoons have depicted him sitting on the beach enjoying himself while Thais die from the virus.
Prayuth was also forced to self-isolate this week after a businessman he had contact with at the sandbox launch tested positive for COVID-19.
Last-minute issues with the program meant some cancelations before it even began, and the initial target of 30,000 visitors for July was reduced to 18,000. BhummikittiRuktaengam, president of Phuket Tourism Association, said now that the program is up and running he expects 30,000 visitors from outside Thailand in August.
There’s still a lot of ground to make up to get back to the 2 million foreigners Phuket saw in the first five months of last year as the pandemic was beginning.
“The COVID-19 situation might affect the overall picture of the country, but I believe that the visitors will understand that Phuket is safe enough for them so it should not affect their travel plans,” he said.
Liron Or, a tourist from Israel, decided on a 10-day trip to Phuket with her husband and five children when she first heard about the sandbox plan three weeks ago.
They arrived on day one and she said the opportunity to relax on holiday has outweighed any of the mandated precautions.
“The process is not too difficult,” she said. “And this trip gives our children such big joy. There are not too many tourists here at the moment on the beaches.”
Travellers arriving elsewhere in Thailand are subject to a strict 14-day hotel room quarantine, but under the sandbox plan, visitors to Phuket can roam the entire island — the country’s largest — where they can lounge on beaches, jet ski and eat out in restaurants.
Visitors are only permitted from countries considered no higher than “medium” risk. Most so far have come from the U.S., Britain, Germany, the United Arab Emirates and Israel.
Phuket currently has 131,809 room nights booked for July, with 9,745 booked for August and 1,094 booked for September.
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