Phuket gets ready for tourists amid Covid-19 in 'sandbox' experiment by Thai government
Sabai Sabai, a family-run restaurant, among the many dotted along Phuket's renowned Patong beach, is ready to open its doors.
All the staff are vaccinated against Covid-19 and the eatery has stocked up on cleaning supplies while the kitchen is filled with fresh produce in anticipation of the island's reopening on July 1 - marking the start of an experiment by the Thai government to revive the tourist playground.
"It definitely brings us hope," owner Madam Yupin Khantakul, 70, told The Straits Times. "It's the light at the end of a dark tunnel."
Dubbed the "Phuket Sandbox" plan by the government, the reopening scheme allows fully vaccinated tourists to return under guidelines that involve multiple Covid-19 tests as well as ring-fencing the southern island to prevent any possible outbreak from spreading to other parts of the kingdom.
The reopening can be suspended if more than 90 infections are recorded a week on the island.
Authorities expect more than 600,000 foreign and local tourists to visit Phuket in the next three months, generating a cash flow of about 15 billion baht (S$634 million).
If the plan goes smoothly, it could be replicated in other destinations like Krabi and Koh Samui.
Days away from Phuket's opening, optimism is at an all time high for those in the tourism industry who have borne the brunt of the fallout from the pandemic, with many businesses shuttered since early 2020 after Thailand, like many other countries around the world, closed the border to foreign tourists.
Madam Yupin and her family, including her 18-year-old granddaughter, Punnisa Khantakul, have for the past year witnessed the ruin and loss wrought by the pandemic to the once lively stretch of beach.
"It looks like an abandoned city," said Ms Punnisa, an undergraduate who works part time at the 30-year-old establishment.
Canadian national Drew Kassa, 49, who visits Thailand about once a year, is among those foreigners keen to return to the sun-drenched shores of Phuket.
He plans to fly to Phuket from where he lives in Malta on July 3, and has already booked a month-long stay. He is in the process of getting his paperwork approved before he books his flight.
Mr Kassa, who is currently unemployed, said the "sandbox scheme" is an opportunity to have a "long getaway from Europe".
ST got in touch with him through one of the many private Facebook groups set up for tourists interested in visiting Phuket.
"I am a travel foodie at heart and love the people and culture of Thailand," he said, noting that Phuket will not be as crowded as before. "Now I will be able to see Thailand in a whole new light without the crowds."
Hotels on the island have also seen an uptick in online traffic, with enquiries and bookings from all over the world, said representatives from operators like Marriott International, ONYX Hospitality group and IHG Hotels & Resorts.
While the hotel operators declined to share figures, Mr Charles Yap, ONYX's vice-president of marketing and communications, said reservations at its two Phuket hotels had come from Europe, the United States and Israel, among others.
Similarly, tour agencies like I Asia Thailand have also seen an increase in bookings for their airport transfers and island tours from July.
Like other players, the tour agency was badly hit by the pandemic, with revenue plunging by 95 per cent loss, said its general manager Nick Critelli.
In an effort to stay afloat, it started offering private tours to domestic tourists and also began services providing Covid-19 tests.
For Mr Chaiyuth Sophannarat, 50, who runs travel agency Go Phuket, the reopening will also keep his business running and his workers employed.
"I've been dipping into my savings to pay them," said the Phuket local, adding that he has not gone bankrupt yet as he also operates a small construction company.
"The sandbox is the only way we can go back to normal," he said.
Likewise, general manager of Unit 27 gym in Phuket, Mr Ryan Fryer, 37, said it was a chance to get back to work, "rather than just waiting".
But while the gym has received "heaps" of enquiries for its fitness camps and classes, people have not been able to commit due to the fluidity of the Covid-19 situation.
In the last few days, Thai authorities have been rushing to firm up the sandbox plan with new rules announced every day. In turn, operators have had to adapt to the constant adjustments.
Mr Teerawat Jutamontree, 30, the owner of Moontree Elemental Spa, has been fretting over the evolving situation.
"Sometimes it changes in just a few days, so it is a bit nerve-wracking," he said.
Still, not everyone is convinced that Phuket is prepared, especially since there have been cases where fully vaccinated people are infected.
Strategic communications consultant Sreejit Pillai, 53, said he will stay away for the time being.
"This is an experimental opening and with the more infectious Delta variant going around, I think it will be safer for me to stay home for now," said the Malaysian who used to fly to the island every year for a week-long holiday.
Under the plan, at least 70 per cent of Phuket's population must be vaccinated before the reopening can proceed. Media reports put the figure at 60 per cent as of this month.
Chulalongkorn University epidemiologist Thira Woratanarat told ST that worries about variants are not unfounded.
"Opening the trade and tourism industry at an inappropriate time will make the epidemic worsen due to increasing the number of people in the area, number of contacts and increased interactions among people which are the risk factors for disease transmission," he said, warning that Thailand is likely to see more infections after opening its tourism industry.
On Thursday (June 24), Thailand's Public Health Ministry reported 31 Covid-19 deaths and 4,108 new cases. This brings the country's total to more than 228,000 cases and more than 1,700 deaths.
"At the current level of in-country transmission, I think it is likely to see the epidemic worsen in the last trimester of the year," said Prof Thira.
The Sandbox Plan
What: A pilot scheme which allows Covid-19 vaccinated visitors to fly direct to Phuket without quarantine.
When: From July 1
• must be from a Thai government list of low and medium risk countries.
• must have a negative Covid-19 RT-PCR test result issued within 72 hours of arrival.
• must stay in Phuket for at least 14 days before travelling to other parts of Thailand.
• must wear masks in public.
• must download Thailand contact tracing app.
• must take mandatory insurance coverage of a minimum US$100,000 for Covid-19 treatment.
• Tourism-related businesses must be "SHA Plus" accredited, meaning they will have to meet certain requirements including having at least 70 per cent of their staff vaccinated.
At least 70 per cent of Phuket's population must be vaccinated before reopening. Nationwide about 3 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated.
• The scheme will be suspended if the number of weekly Covid cases on Phuket exceeds 90.