Two more foreign tourists within the Phuket sandbox test positive while the province has just announced its first Delta virus case as schools close for two weeks with a worrying uptick in infection rates announced on Sunday, it is clear that public health officials have a job to do to defend against the new virus wave but it is also quite apparent that the overly restrictive regulations themselves are a turnoff for potential tourists and dampen enthusiasm.
As authorities in Phuket revealed on Sunday that the Delta variant had been detected on the island and a further two tourists had tested positive, the story of two European visitors, German Stefanie Korényi and Norwegian trainee medical student Hans Erling Skallevold, who have ended up out of pocket and in Alternative Local Quarantine (ALQ) facilities on Phuket, has highlighted the fear and confusion being caused by red tape and regulations designed to protect public health but which are strangling the confidence of prospective tourists and generating increased negativity towards a scheme which initially was supported enthusiastically by many fans of Thailand.
On Friday last, July 9th, the Governor of Phuket, Narong Woonsiew, published the full regulatory text for the Phuket Sandbox scheme on the ‘Phuket Info Centre’ where it was listed as Order 3858/2564.
There is no explanation from officials for this and on examination of the text in English, it does not appear that there were any significant changes to the protocols.
We do know that, on July 5th, the position regarding the issuance of Certificate of Entry from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for mixed vaccination types was changed and there are concerns about the policy forcing all at-risk passengers on a flight into more expensive alternative quarantine hotels given the rising risk level to would-be holidaymakers as the Delta virus rises around the world.
Party of 13 tourists who rejected quarantine flew home over the weekend, one German woman stayed
Officials in Phuket confirmed on Sunday that a party of 13 tourists flew off the island on Saturday night after being ordered into alternative quarantine holiday accommodation following the positive test confirmed last Tuesday night which has cast doubt over the scheme, given the initial protocols which insist that high-risk individuals on each flight must be placed in the costly Alternative Local Quarantine (ALQ) scheme on the island at their own expense for 14 days.
Stefanie Korényi from Berlin in Germany, however, was the one tourist who accepted her fate and is currently staying at an Alternative Local Quarantine (ALQ) hotel on Phuket which has left her €1,000 out of pocket, placed her in inferior accommodation and completely curtailed her holiday experience.
German translator and media expert is on the trip of a lifetime and is a regular visitor to Thailand
Like many of the foreign tourists to Thailand, Stefanie is a repeat visitor to the kingdom and her trip extends beyond a short two week holiday which may be one of the reasons why she opted to follow the programme and comply with the regulations unlike all of the other at risk passengers on Emirates Flight EK 383 which arrived last Tuesday afternoon at Phuket International Airport.
The German, who sold up her life in Germany and is embarking on a once a lifetime journey, beginning with Thailand, is part of a growing cohort of people worldwide with a genuine affinity for the kingdom.
This again demonstrates the overlap between foreign tourism and international migration from western countries which Thai planners have already identified and moved in recent months to accommodate with several initiatives including special visas.
Ms Korényi is a professional translator as well as an independent media professional producing blogs and photographic material.
First stop had to be Thailand, Ms Korényi had earlier booked and paid for 10 days in an Alternative State Quarantine (ASQ) hotel in Bangkok
In her statement on Facebook, this week, she said she intended to return to work eventually in Germany and had prepared for her extended trip for over six months including selling off her belongings and possessions.
‘It was obvious to me that the first stop should be Thailand,’ she said.
Stefanie had initially booked a 10-day Alternative Quarantine Scheme hotel in Bangkok. The German woman had just paid for the stay there when she found out the regulations had changed and instead stipulated a 15 day quarantine period.
This occurred at the same time as the Phuket Sandbox scheme was confirmed.
So she figured that a 14 day holiday in Phuket was more attractive to her than paying for the 5 days extra quarantine in Bangkok, so she wrote off her already paid for stay in the capital.
Uplifting flight from Frankfurt to Dubai with a sense of adventure and looking forward to being in Thailand, her favourite destination
Finally last week, Stefanie’s trip to Thailand began.
‘Remaining are 1 large travel bag, 1 small backpack and 1 helmet. That’s all I own! I don’t even have keys. I’m officially homeless,’ she noted as she set off for Frankfurt Airport and the Emirates flight in the first leg of her trip to Dubai.
Her initial flight was quite relaxing with plenty of room on the plane and filled with a sense of adventure within her that, at last, she was on her way to Thailand, one of her favourite places in the world.
Things changed somewhat on the flight from Dubai to Phuket.
At first, there was plenty of room but she soon found herself surrounded by a large family, a group from the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Stefanie revealed she developed an instant dislike to a young twenty-something passenger who sat near her with a facemask that dipped below his nose.
She wondered whether she should have asked to be moved and now regrets not doing so.
Papers checked three times at the airport in Phuket, happy to wait overnight for her COVID-19 test result
The German woman arrived at Phuket Airport where her papers were checked over three times and, after an hour or so, she was transferred to her SHA-1 hotel in Rawai Beach.
She was told that she would have to wait overnight for her test result to come through but, as she was tired and the room was so beautiful overlooking the pool with a fully stocked mini-bar, she was more than happy to just settle in for the night.
The next morning she was told she was in the clear with a negative test so she hired a scooter and set off for Nai Harn Beach and Windmill Viewpoint to begin her vacation.
She arrived back at the hotel for lunch and enjoyed some cold beers at the pool where she met several Israelis.
Later, she went up to her room to change and get herself ready for dinner. A call from reception broke the spell.
Stefanie was told she had to move into an Alternative Local Quarantine facility without any support or help from officials, only an instruction to her hotel
Stefanie was told, unfortunately, she had been identified as an ‘at risk’ visitor after a -UAE passenger on her flight had tested positive and she was to be removed at once to an Alternative Local Quarantine hotel and to be placed officially under a quarantine order.
12 tourists in Phuket placed in quarantine ask to be flown home after their island holiday was ruined
The German woman tried to contact the German Embassy and the German Consulate in Phuket for assistance but it was no use.
‘I was practically left to my own devices. The instruction to go to an ALQ only went to my hotel,’ she recalled.
Her best and only friend appeared to be a very kind girl working at the reception desk at the Rawai Palm Beach Resort who worked to help the hotel guest and eventually found her one of what appeared to be scarce Alternative Local Quarantine hotel rooms within her budget in Patong.
The cost was ฿52,000 or ฿37,000 extra, the equivalent of €1,000.
‘I really wonder what they do with tourists who just can’t make an extra €1,000? Do they go to jail? To the hospital?’ she asked this week from her room in quarantine.
Given one hour to pack her bags, she was met at the hotel by a secure transport vehicle with two men heavily suited and protected.
There was even a partition to keep her apart as they drove her to the new hotel in Patong.
Staff at the new, less luxurious but far more expensive hotel were very sympathetic to the German woman
The German goes out of her way to acknowledge the kindness and the sympathy she was shown at her new hotel but alas, it was ‘middle class’ and a far cry from her earlier, less expensive, but far more luxurious accommodation.
Dinner was waiting for her in her room in plastic containers and since then all her food has been served lukewarm like this and the containers disposed of afterwards.
She has a balcony in her room but the internet is not good although she has been promised a sim card with unlimited internet for her phone and is grateful to have soft drinks brought from the local seven eleven convenience store.
Questions for Thai authorities from tourist
Sitting as a virtual prisoner in her ALQ suite, the German woman has had time to ponder key questions for Thai authorities that she feels she has the right to ask given that she has paid the price. They are these:
Why was there no help at all from officials when she was told she was being quarantined, no representative or liaison person on hand?
Why was she offered no active assistance from authorities when this catastrophe befell her as her dream holiday turned sour?
Why does she, a fully vaccinated European visitor, have to be quarantined for 14 days? She had already cleared two tests, one before travelling and one on arrival. Would not the clearance of the second test on Day 6 be sufficient?
‘Why does it have to be the full 14 days? How likely is it that I, as a fully vaccinated person, will infect someone even after the second negative corona test?’ she asks.
Young Norwegian had a similar jolting, expensive and catastrophic experience just hours before leaving for Thailand, his vaccinated status was rejected
Stefanie is not the only foreign tourist who is asking searching questions about the inconsistency and sheer unfriendliness of the red tape and regulation that surrounds the scheme and the operation of the Certificate of Entry process linked with it.
Hans Erling Skallevold is a trainee doctor who has worked as an internet medical student at Thai medical facilities in Bangkok and Phitsanulok.
The young Norwegian is another example of what Thailand’s real tourist industry looks like and the loyalty of this market to the kingdom.
This latest visit by the young man, who has a beautiful Thai girlfriend, was his 27th but alas it is the first time he has been made to feel, according to his girlfriend’s words, unwelcome in Thailand.
Hans stayed in an ALQ facility in December 2020
Hans had booked himself into the Phuket Sandbox programme and was looking forward to spending time with his girlfriend who had timed her one week off work to meet him on the holiday island.
The Norwegian had even stayed in the Alternative Local Quarantine (ALQ) on a visit before this in December 2020.
However, his problems began shortly before he was to leave Norway for Thailand when he was informed that, as he had a mixed vaccine combination of both the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccine, his vaccination certificate was not being accepted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bangkok and that, consequently, he would have to enter into quarantine in Thailand.
The young man received this information at 3 am on the 29th of June which he only saw at 8 am that morning not long before he was due to depart from Norway to Thailand to arrive on July 1st.
Caught up in confusion over Certificate of Entry at the launch of the scheme from the 29th June to July 1st
He was also one of those who were caught up in the debacle that followed when it emerged the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Thailand was unable to issue Certificates of Entry until the Phuket Sandbox regulations were published in the Royal Gazette on June 30th.
Phuket tourists fly in but the success of the plan is uncertain due to red tape and needling restrictions
‘This is the first time he has felt unwelcome in his visit to Thailand. He prepared all the documents. At first, it wasn’t a problem. But just hours before leaving for Phuket, his initial COE was denied, now he feels like he is in prison,’ the girlfriend explained later.
฿60,000 out of pocket after being moved over into 14 days Alternative Quarantine entry regime when his vaccination certificate was rejected
The last-minute shock, and change of accommodation required, cost the young medical professional ฿60,000 but he paid it as he wanted to at least be a step closer to his sweetheart in Phuket as promised.
Hans’ reluctant acceptance of the change of plan and Certificate of Entry under state quarantine was rewarded by being turned away from the first flight as it was not prepared, ironically, to handle the protocols for passengers travelling into quarantine in Phuket.
He was very lucky to get on a second flight to Thailand the next day only due to the direct intervention of authorities in Phuket itself who were actively trying to smooth over problems arising from the scheme and snags caused by red tape.
Since then, Thai authorities have changed the regulations from July 5th last to allow mixed vaccinations which Thai doctors have endorsed as providing more effective immunisation.
Hopes last week dashed when he was told he must stay in quarantine since he agreed to it at the beginning
However, although Hans was then told that he could transfer to the sandbox programme this week because of this change of policy, it was later shot down by officials who stipulated that as he had agreed to enter into the 14-day quarantine arrangement, then he must remain there.
The experience, just as with Stefanie, has left a strong and ardent supporter of Thailand and its people with a somewhat bitter taste in his mouth and a suspicion that the government’s overbearing regulation is certainly part of the problem here.
‘I’m a practising dentist from Norway, a medical student and a university researcher. I also work with COVID-testing and vaccinating, and treatment. This is my 27th time in Thailand, being involved in several hospitals and universities here, so I’m fairly familiar. I Was in ASQ last December,’ he said this week. ‘I have been involved in promoting Phuket and the Sandbox, and have been among their most engaging supporters. Sadly, I am not much of a supporter anymore. To put it simply, our plan for Phuket was perfect, the government’s was not. This is their way of treating one of Thailand’s biggest fans.’
Defence of the Phuket sandbox protocols by authorities is that they must initially make sure to protect public health before conditions may be eased
Thai authorities have countered the critics in the last week by pointing out that they were obliged to insist on strict conditions of entry to protect the health of the Thai public but that, in time, they can adjust the measures for more ease and convenience.
On Saturday, the Head of the Phuket Provincial Public Health Office, Dr Kusak Kukiattikoon, reported that two more tourists, an eight and nine-year-old, who were part of a seven-member family from Myanmar, had tested positive on the second test after their arrival in the country on the 6th day as required.
The top public health official made the announcement as he also revealed a disturbing pick up in infections locally in Phuket.
Eleven more cases were reported on Sunday including five foreigners.
Schools closed on the island with an uptick in infections among foreigners and the first Delta case
The rise in infections has caused authorities in Phuket to issue an order closing all schools on the island from July 12th to 23rd with the local committee on communicable diseases also recommending stricter screening of incoming visitors from other parts of Thailand particularly among students travelling to attend school.
There is concern for unvaccinated adults in Phuket, despite its 70% vaccination rate, and those aged under 18 years of age.
On Saturday, Dr Kusak also revealed the first case of the Delta variant had been detected after a businessman tested positive. He is believed to have contracted the disease from a visitor who flew in from Bangkok.
The island is also home to the South African Beta variant of the disease and the Alpha strain or UK variant which is currently being overtaken nationwide with the far more infectious Delta strain.
Children admitted to hospital as Myanmar family is quarantined and their movements are checked
Dr Kusak told the media the two children had been admitted to hospital and the Myanmar family had been quarantined. The group comprised of two families. He did not mention the circumstances under which they had been quarantined.
He indicated that officials were checking the movements of the family from the mandatory Mor Channa app and could not yet determine whether the children had picked up the disease on the island or whether it had been incubating when they arrived.
Don’t panic says public health chief
At the time of the briefing, 3,287 people had arrived in Phuket under the Sandbox scheme.
On Sunday, the public health chief repeatedly emphasised to the press that the population should have confidence in the public health office to manage the situation and that there was no cause for concern or alarm at this stage.
‘Don’t worry. The Phuket Public Health Team can handle it. Please everyone be confident, don’t panic.’