The Thai government increasingly sees the Phuket initiative as critical to the country’s economic objectives. Last weekend, a high powered delegation, including former Immigration Bureau boss Police Lieutenant General Surachate Hakparn and Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) Governor Yuthasak Supasorn, visited the island to review security and speak to entrepreneurs and business people. There is, however, an awareness that the plan faces a grave threat from the devastating Delta variant of COVID-19 currently sweeping Thailand, Southeast Asia and the world but a determination to preserve the confidence and hope that the scheme has brought since July 1st.
Officials in Bangkok and Phuket are moving to protect the Phuket Sandbox scheme with a delegation visiting the island last Friday which included the Tourism Authority of Thailand Governor Yuthasak Supasorn and ‘Big Joke’, the top policeman and former Immigration Bureau supremo, to review security and arrangements for visitors on the island. It is reported that the scheme is beginning to show some promise with tourist industry chiefs in the province now suggesting that up to 18,000 foreign visitors will enter Phuket in July. The plan, which is increasingly seen as critical to the success of Thailand’s overarching goal of reopening to foreign tourism, is, like the rest of the kingdom, increasingly threatened by the current surge of the COVID-19 virus. On Monday, it was reported that officials in Phuket have asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to look closely at the 72-hour COVID-19 tests that all prospective incoming passengers must take as part of the Certificate of Entry process after seven incoming tourists are now reported to have tested positive at the airport.
The Thai government remains committed to the Phuket Sandbox which appears to be progressing well with July numbers beginning to look like they will exceed the prediction of 14,000, which emerged earlier in the month, and hit upwards of 18,000 foreign tourists.
Nevertheless, there are rising concerns, despite the daily arrival of over 600 tourists, with a spike in the number of infected tourists being found in the Sandbox.
Big Joke visited Phuket last weekend, public health officials later announced further restrictions
Phuket has also just announced further restrictions on the island with former Immigration Bureau boss Police Lieutenant General Surachate Hakparn paying a visit last weekend to review screening checks on visitors travelling onto the island from the mainland and to conduct a full security review.
The top policeman was also reported to have met local entrepreneurs as the government intensified efforts both to protect the vital initiative and also make sure that holiday markers enjoy a positive experience on the island despite opening difficulties and the ongoing threat from a resurgent virus.
Unclear if protocols regarding incoming passengers on flights where a visitor tests positive have changed
It is not clear if protocols have changed but it has now been revealed that seven people who arrived at Phuket International Airport tested positive on arrival including the initial passenger on Tuesday 6th July from the United Arab Emirates which later caused quarantined tourists on the flight with him to return home.
12 tourists in Phuket placed in quarantine ask to be flown home after their island holiday was ruined
Since then, there has not been further controversy of this sort which initially caused severe damage to the reopening.
Phuket’s Governor and hospital director ask the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to look into the 72 hour COVID-19 test before travelling to Phuket
On Monday, it was reported that provincial officials on the island have called on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to look at the situation regarding the Certificate of Entry COVID-19 test required of all passengers within 72 hours of a flight to Phuket.
It is understood that Phuket’s Governor, Narong Woonsiew, and the director of Vachira Phuket Hospital on the island Dr Chalermpong Sukontapol, have asked that officials at the ministry in Bangkok look closely at this requirement as they try to get a better understanding.
16 foreign tourists have tested positive, 7 at the airport up to the 17th July local officials confirm
As of Saturday 17th of July, it was reported that 7,462 travellers had arrived on the island with only 7 or less than 0.01% testing positive. These results conflicted with the prior test before flying.
A further 0.2% or 9 visitors tested positive on subsequent tests after spending some time on the island.
The provincial officials stressed that they were certainly not questioning the Certificate of Entry procedure or suggesting stricter oversight but are asking for the matter to be explored.
Growing lockdown measures across 13 provinces in Thailand including Bangkok and Chonburi
The latest public health measures, just announced, come as the hardest-hit provinces in the rest of the kingdom including Bangkok, Chonburi and eleven others are bracing themselves for a full lockdown.
The extensive list of orders essentially brings to an end late night activity in Phuket at least temporarily but it also indicates the real concern that exists at an official level regarding the danger posed by the highly infectious Delta virus causing havoc around the world but especially in Southeast Asia at this time.
Bars and entertainment venues on Phuket closed and last orders at 9 pm under new public health measures just announced by provincial authorities
The measures in Phuket confirm the temporary closure of all public bars, karaoke and entertainment venues on the island.
This also applies to boxing stadia, cockfighting centres, sports arenas and other venues such as this.
Department stores have been ordered to shut at 9 pm except for amusement centres.
Food and alcoholic beverages can only be consumed up to 9 pm while convenience stores (allowed to open from 4 am to 11 pm) and gyms will open as normal with sports events limited in crowd capacity.
The 9 pm closing time will also apply to snooker and pool venues while people are encouraged not to socialise or drink together in large groups.
Ban on travel outside Phuket extends to top officials and business executives stationed on the island
The extensive order also places strict limits on travel outside Phuket which are especially targeted at government officials and business executives, most especially at the highest level.
Permission for such trips must be sought from the Governor and provincial authorities.
Tourist industry leader declares the Phuket sandbox a success saying it has brought back confidence
Nevertheless, one of the architects of the scheme, the President of the Phuket Tourist Association, Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, has declared the opening weeks of the sandbox a success.
Mr Bhummikitti said that the scheme has fostered confidence in foreign tourists in Thailand as a holiday destination despite all the difficulties.
‘During the first two weeks, we have built up the confidence of foreign travellers,’ he said.
He urged the government to approve the Russian Sputnik V vaccine for the scheme as he predicted a possible surge of Russian tourists for October.
His tourism body is currently predicting 18,000 visitors for July with 30,000 for August and 35,000 for September.
Credible result if it can be achieved but below Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT)’s predictions
The figure is below the 100,000 targeted by the Tourism Authority of Thailand at the launch of the scheme but if achieved, it would be a credible result.
For Thai authorities, both within Phuket and without, right now, the Phuket sandbox is a scheme that all parties have a stake in and are determined to protect as it faces a very real threat from the lurking Delta variant of COVID-19 which is already in Phuket.
The province is also threatened from the outside as this more vicious strain of the disease devastates other provinces.
75% of the population of Phuket was vaccinated as part of the plan but it is understood that the vast majority of these vaccinations were carried out using the Sinovac vaccine which is now widely accepted as having less efficacy against the Delta strain.
Phuket Sandbox is seen as vital to Thailand’s strategic plan to reopen its foreign tourism industry and revive the country’s ailing economy still facing a crisis
Sources in Bangkok suggest that the Phuket Sandbox scheme is vital to the government’s efforts even amid a worsening emergency, to reopen the kingdom’s critically important foreign tourism industry later in the year and to extend such arrangements to other areas associated in the past with foreign tourism.
It comes as the crisis in Bangkok has seen the suspension of airline flights from the capital over the weekend and the extension of the deep red or danger zone public health lockdown measures to three other provinces including Chonburi and the foreign tourist haven of Pattaya.
To date, visitors to Phuket are mostly from Western and European countries with the United States leading the way with a reported mix of business and holidaymakers followed by the United Arab Emirates, Israel, the United Kingdom and Germany.
Freedom Day in the United Kingdom will benefit Phuket’s reopening as returning travellers face no restrictions as EU downgrade has no impact
Mr Siripakorn Cheawsamoot, Deputy Director for Europe of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, noted this week that the removal of restrictions in the United Kingdom on Monday, dubbed by the UK press as ‘Freedom Day’ will benefit Phuket as travellers to Thailand, an amber listed country, will no longer be required to quarantine when travelling home.
The removal of Thailand from the green list by the European Union, also this week, however, will not adversely impact the project as vaccinated nationals from the European Union do not face restrictions when they return to the now 27 member bloc.
Virus in Thailand is growing as officials look at protecting the Phuket initiative which is progressing
Thailand is now recording 133.35 cases per 100,000 of the population compared to the United States, formerly the epicentre of the disease which is at 95 per 100,000.
75 is the limit set by the European Union for green countries.
Tourism chiefs and government officials both in Phuket and Bangkok are now focusing on protecting the vital initiative and generating goodwill among tourists already visiting.
Foreign tourists allowed to take to sea around Phuket
On Sunday night, the Governor of the island, Mr Narong, issued an order allowing tourists access to sailing tours off the island from specified piers.
‘Sandbox tourists who are still observing their mandatory 14-day stay in Phuket can travel around Phuket to other islands by leaving with a tour boat at these three piers: Ao Por, Rassada, and Chalong,’ the notice explained.
Hotel industry leaders are upbeat but it will be four years before numbers are back to past levels
One hotel network, the Laguna Group, which has seven hotels on the island and is associated with the Banyan Tree Group and which was reporting single-digit occupancy levels before the sandbox, has reported a jump because of the scheme.
The occupancy rate has now risen to 20% and it hopes it will rise higher with an expected stronger recovery from October.
Bill Barnett is the Managing Director of C9 Hotelworks, another hotel operator who is reporting a boost from the plan.
‘Phuket will start to feel a real impact in October when the Russian market returns, along with Northern European guests,’ he said this week.
67% of new hotel building projects still on track
The sense of hope within the industry in Phuket even with the limited success achieved so far, and the danger that still threatens can be seen from the fact that 67% of planned hotel building projects in the pipeline before the crisis have not been cancelled and are still going ahead with a potential for 8,000 to 9,000 extra rooms on the island being proposed.
Nevertheless, Mr Barnett was quite clear that it will take 4 years for Phuket to see anything like the foreign tourist traffic achieved in 2019 before the pandemic struck.
Top policeman Police Lieutenant General Surachate Hakparn or Big Joke dispatched to Phuket last week
On Friday last, Big Joke, one of the most well known and respected police officers among foreigners in Thailand and who now works at Royal Thai Police Headquarters, was dispatched to Phuket together with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) Governor Yuthasak Supasorn to monitor security services on the borders crossing into Phuket and the range of security procedures and operations in place to protect the local population and tourists holidaying on the island.
The former Immigration Bureau boss, who once also worked as a senior officer in the tourist police, emphasised the importance of protecting the Phuket sandbox scheme to Thailand’s economy and its foreign tourism industry.
Top tourists soured by red tape, hyper regulation is killing off enthusiasm for the Phuket sandbox among fans
He pointed out that if the scheme can be secured, it would grow and help the reopening of the wider economy.
Only fully vaccinated people from Thailand and with a negative COVID-19 test can enter Phuket right now
Currently, only people who are fully vaccinated outside 14 days and who have a negative Covid test within 72 hours are allowed entry into Phuket and must produce the required documentation.
Authorities are, however, accepting one AstraZeneca jab outside 14 days instead of two Sinovac doses.
The top policeman also met entrepreneurs and business people and pointed out that a separate team was examining reports of overcharging by taxis on the island.
Unobtrusive security operation to protect Phuket
Police Lieutenant General Surachate also referenced security monitoring facilities to make sure visitors to the island do not leave the sandbox but said that this system was not intrusive and should not concern anyone enjoying their holiday.
He told reporters that it may be possible, in the future, for pleasure craft to enter Phuket as part of the sandbox plan but for now, the island’s security was more of a priority.