2021-10-04 22:30:10 Thailand’s Quarantine-Island Experiment Is Showing (Modest) Results

Thailand’s Quarantine-Island Experiment Is Showing (Modest) Results

PHUKET, Thailand (AP) — Thailand launched a campaign three months ago with great fanfare to start reviving its vital tourism industry by allowing visitors who follow strict Covid-19 protocols to roam freely on the resort island of Phuket.

The Phuket Sandbox program effectively turned Thailand’s largest island into a quarantine zone for overseas tourists who had been fully vaccinated and had negative test results. They could visit other islands if they continued to test negative for seven days; after 14 days, they could go anywhere in Thailand.

After roughly three months, the campaign has attracted approximately 41,000 people, falling far short of the government’s goal of 100,000 in the first 90 days. Many have been returning residents from abroad, rather than tourists. According to industry groups, Phuket had nearly 10 million international visitors in 2019.

Nonetheless, hoteliers and small business owners say the program has aided the devastated local economy, and other Southeast Asian countries with resort islands are considering replicating it.

“I see the Sandbox as far better than nothing because at least there are employees who are working again,” said Kanyaphak Lertjaraspong, a tour package seller in Patong, a beach town in the heart of Phuket’s normally rowdy party scene. “At the very least, they have a source of income.”

Sandiaga Uno, Indonesia’s tourism minister, told reporters last week that a similar program could be designed for the island of Bali, Indonesia’s most popular tourist destination. Bali has recently seen a decrease in Covid cases, and Indonesia hopes to open it to foreign visitors as soon as this month.

“With the improved situation in Bali now, we are debating whether to implement this,” Mr. Sandiaga said.

Thailand was a leader in containing the spread of the coronavirus last year. However, it took a long time to obtain vaccines, and it has been overrun by the Delta variant since the middle of this year.

It peaked at 23,400 daily infections in mid-August and has since averaged more than 10,000 new cases per day. Even as the government works to contain the virus, it is also attempting to revitalize tourism, which accounted for up to a fifth of Thailand’s economy prior to the pandemic.

Some restrictions were lifted for Bangkok and other hard-hit areas on Friday. A curfew of 10 p.m. was imposed, and fitness centers, beauty salons, massage and tattoo parlors, libraries, museums, and movie theaters were allowed to reopen.

Some of the program’s rules have also been relaxed on Phuket, which officials hope will result in more visitors. The maximum required stay on the island was reduced from 14 days to seven days on Friday. During that time, only two Covid tests are now required, and vaccinated visitors from any country are welcome, not just those from low-risk areas. And Phuket’s restaurants can once again sell alcoholic beverages.

Patong’s once-bustling streets have been mostly deserted for months. Entrepreneurial vendors have taken over the street fronts of vacant nightclubs to sell fruit, clothing, and other wares.

However, on Friday evening, street life appeared to be returning. Even though it was still illegal for bars to serve alcohol, some did so anyway, selling it to customers in paper or plastic cups.

Ms. Kanyaphak, a tour package seller, stated that since the start of the Phuket program, some visitors have been disappointed to find Patong nightclubs and many other businesses closed.

“They came to Phuket expecting everything to be the same as it used to be, that shops, restaurants, and bars would be open,” Ms. Kanyaphak explained. “However, not all of the stores are open. I’d say only about 20% are back in business.”

However, she stated that business had been steadily increasing as a result of the influx of visitors, and she hoped that the recent changes would result in even more.

Phuket has an international airport and is linked to the Thai mainland by a single bridge. This allows for the screening of all travelers, whether they arrive by road or air.

Officials admit that the complicated application process for Phuket Sandbox has been a deterrent. Visitors must submit numerous documents, pay for coronavirus testing in advance, and provide proof of Covid insurance. Some people may be concerned about the requirement to install an app on their phone that allows health officials to track their movements.

In a Facebook post on Friday, Thailand’s Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, pledged to improve the application process. He deemed the program a success and stated that it would be expanded, noting that it had not resulted in the spread of Covid in Phuket. Approximately 125 Sandbox visitors tested positive.

Another issue with the program has been the policy that requires travelers who test positive or are traveling with someone who tests positive to be transferred from their hotel to a health care facility and kept in strict quarantine for up to 14 days at their own expense. As a result, tourists who were seated next to an infectious passenger on their flight to Phuket were subjected to mandatory quarantine.

Other neighboring countries, aside from Indonesia, have been watching the Phuket experiment to see if something similar could work for their own struggling tourism industries. As a first step toward welcoming foreign visitors, Malaysia opened the island of Langkawi to domestic tourists in mid-September. Vietnam had hoped to welcome foreign tourists to the island of Phu Quoc this month, but the opening had to be postponed due to a vaccine shortage.

Thailand, which also has a limited vaccine supply, has made it a priority to immunize residents of tourist areas such as Phuket and Koh Samui, another popular tourist island, in order to expedite their reopenings.

According to government figures, more than 83 percent of Phuket’s population has received two vaccine doses. However, many of those were Sinovac, a Chinese-made vaccine that has proven to be less effective against the Delta variant than others.

To address this, the government has begun giving Astra-Zeneca vaccine boosters to people who received Sinovac, using one-fifth of the normal dose to conserve the limited supply.

Many of the Phuket Sandbox participants were Thai residents returning from overseas travel, rather than tourists. A stay in Phuket was a pleasant alternative to mandatory quarantine in a Bangkok hotel room for them.

The Phuket Hotel Association’s president, Anthony Lark, described the program as “an absolute lifeline not just for hotels and hotel owners, but for thousands of staff whose sole source of income is tourism.”

Colorful, 19th-century shop houses in Phuket Town, the island’s provincial capital, have long drawn visitors to the historic Old Town district. According to Piangpen Thampradit, owner of the Phuketique Coffee Bar, business there collapsed during the pandemic but is slowly resuming.

“My customers who rely on tourism can get their businesses up and running, and we can see the money moving,” she said.

Large resort hotels have reaped the most benefits from the program, while some small-business owners say they have yet to see much benefit. Ms. Piangpen, who recently closed one of her two shops due to a lack of customers, stated that her initial expectations were low, but she is now more optimistic.

“I am excited about the program,” she stated. “It is far superior to doing nothing. It will take some time for us small businesses to reap the benefits. We are patiently awaiting that moment.”

Muktita Suhartono from Bangkok, Adam Dean from Phuket, and Dera Menra Sijabat from Bali, Indonesia, contributed reporting.

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Thailand’s Quarantine-Island Experiment Is Showing (Modest) Results