The Phuket Sandbox has now come to represent Thailand’s efforts to refloat its foreign tourism industry. Last week saw Police Lieutenant General Surachate Hakparn or ‘Big Joke’ on the island with a mission to improve security for visitors, particularly ahead of an expected invasion of Russian tourists in November after the Sputnik V vaccine has now been approved for inclusion in the scheme allowing Russians to apply for Certificates of Entry.
The Phuket Sandbox, seen by many as Thailand’s beachhead in its goal to revive the country’s lost foreign tourism industry, was left facing new challenges this week with rising COVID-19 infections on the island and 68% of hospital beds being used by patients with the disease. From Monday next, the kingdom will be placed on the United Kingdom’s red list of countries for travel purposes. It comes as it looks like August will only see 12,000 visitors arriving through the scheme with Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT)’s Director in New York warning that Americans, the single largest group of visitors, so far accounting for 13% of all arrivals, are turned off by the demanding requirements to be met as part of the cumbersome Certificate of Entry process. The strategic importance of the Phuket Sandbox has now become intertwined with the kingdom’s economic prospects as the imperative of winning back foreign tourism grows.
Despite the many challenges facing the Phuket Sandbox initiative, it has won praise from many other Asian countries and independent observers.
It is being watched closely by the kingdom’s economic analysts and nervous officials within the government particularly at the Finance Ministry as well as the Bank of Thailand.
The scheme’s future is still under threat with officials increasingly battling to keep it afloat.
It has come to be seen as the key to relaunching Thailand’s huge foreign tourism industry which vanished overnight on April 5th 2020 and has not been seen since in anything like the same volume with this year’s projected visitor numbers on course for less than 1% of 2020, a situation that is increasingly disturbing economic experts.
Thailand had, before the pandemic, the 4th largest tourism industry in the world but this crisis has revealed that it is, perhaps, the most dependent country in the world on tourism which accounts, both directly and indirectly, for 20% of its GDP.
Loss of foreign tourism sees Thailand on course for a 2% of GDP Current Account deficit in 2021
This was confirmed in the last few weeks as the kingdom is projecting its first current account deficit in eight years at 2% of GDP which had seen the Thai baht off by 11% with it rebounding somewhat this week after Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha strongly signalled a determination to keep to his commitment, given in a live TV address in mid-June, to re-open the kingdom to the world by mid-October.
Prime Minister calls for unity as he promises the kingdom is set to make a sustainable recovery from the crisis
On the island of Phuket itself, there is now a grudging acceptance that the scheme has made a difference coming after widespread anger at the elitist nature of the initiative from small-time entrepreneurs who are angry at having been sidelined by the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s emphasis on a new, quality approach to tourism.
Local entrepreneurs not on the same page as officials
Local entrepreneurs and small business people on the island want to see a more relaxed public health environment, something that is currently highly unlikely.
There are still continuous calls for a relaxation of the public health orders in Phuket which include a ban on bars and the sale of alcohol in restaurants.
This puts local authorities in an impossible position given the importance of controlling the current COVID-19 outbreak which is causing rising levels of infection despite a large proportion of the population having been vaccinated.
The hotel occupancy on the island has risen to 20% but this does not take into account the majority of hotels which never reopened for the scheme or failed to meet the SHA1 certification requirements imposed by provincial authorities in conjunction with the government in Bangkok and the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).
Phuket and Ko Samui pilot tourism reopenings feel the strain as infection numbers rise on holiday islands
The problem for officials, and those supervising the scheme in Bangkok, is that the Delta variant of the virus remains a potent threat with a record number of infections reported this week.
Local tourism leadership calls for ฿5 billion from a central government ‘recovery’ fund for Phuket
Last week, in a video teleconference meeting between Deputy Prime Minister Supattanapong Punmeechaow, a strong supporter of the Phuket Sandbox and the man behind the Centre for Economic Situation Administration (CESA), and local business leaders, the President of the Phuket Tourism Council, Thaneth Tantipiriyakij, called for ฿5 billion of the government’s ฿250 billion loan ‘recovery’ fund to be earmarked for Phuket which is now seen as the flag bearer of Thailand’s critically important tourism industry and in the short term, the point of entry for many foreign tourists who will be returning to Thailand.
Mr Thaneth noted that the government had only, so far, spent 4% of this budget.
This money would be spent on assisting the 80% of small business concerns and enterprises that have not been able to recover from the pandemic induced disaster that has hit the island since April 2020 when the flow of foreign visitors simply stopped.
68% of hospital beds are now occupied by COVID-19 patients as calls for booster vaccines grow
In the meantime, despite ongoing efforts to contain the flaring local outbreak on the island where over 70% of the population is already vaccinated, last Thursday the 26th of August saw a record number of 189 infections with over 68% of hospital beds in the province occupied by COVID-19 patients.
This has led to calls from top public health officials and medical experts in Phuket for the government to get behind a third round of vaccination or booster shots for the population.
New international research is indicating that a third dose is particularly effective at raising immunity to the disease.
Vaccine effects and protection, across all jabs, has been shown to wear off, over time, in respect of contracting the infection.
Older people promised two doses of AstraZeneca in an effort to boost the population’s immunity
There is also concern that most of the population on the island were vaccinated using the Sinovac vaccine which has been shown to be less effective against the Delta wave of the virus now dominant everywhere in Thailand.
‘We have already filed a request to the central government for 400,000 doses as the third dose for the general public, and another 70,000 vaccine doses specifically for people who are older than 60 years old and those who have chronic diseases,’ said Dr Chalermphong Sukontapol of Vachira Phuket Hospital this week. ‘The doses of vaccine will be used to boost our people’s immunity and will help the Phuket Sandbox continue as the role model under the goal to open the country in October.’
The top doctor pointed out that, for older people on the island, a double dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine will be provided while the main bulk of the population will receive a Sinovac dose coupled with a final AstraZeneca shot.
‘Big Joke’s mission to strengthen security in preparation for an influx of Russians in November
On Thursday, high profile policeman Police Lieutenant General Surachate Hakparn or ‘Big Joke’ was on the island coordinating a tightening of security ordered by the National Police Commissioner last month following the shocking murder of Swiss tourist Ms Nicole Sauvain-Weisskopf.
‘Big Joke’, a former Tourist Police officer himself, was enthusiastic about the prospect of a large number of Russian tourists arriving in Phuket from November.
This comes after Thai public authorities have cleared the Sputnik V vaccine as one of the approved jabs allowing Russian visitors to avail of the sandbox scheme which offers a holiday in Phuket without quarantine to vaccinated tourists who can now move on to other designated areas of Thailand after spending 7 days at a designated SHA1 hotel.
Manned electronic surveillance of all people who enter and leave Fortress Phuket at all access points
Lieutenant General Surachate was speaking after meeting with senior police officers on the island at the Emergency Operation Center of the Phuket Sandbox located at Police Provincial headquarters.
Security for the sandbox has been tightened making it a fortress guarded by electronic surveillance.
Many foreign tourists have discovered this for themselves.
The 24-hour electronic surveillance centre in place on the island is looking for breaches in security in particular aiming to detect any unauthorised access either to or from the island by sea or land.
All foreign tourists are expected to have an app downloaded on their smartphones and active at all times.
US tourist got a shock when he removed the app from his virus-infected smartphone at the end of July
One tourist who arrived in Phuket at the end of July and later, in August, travelled on to Pattaya has told the Thai Examiner that he was paged urgently in his hotel one afternoon during his stay in Phuket after leaving his smartphone switched off and upstairs in his bedroom.
His phone had developed what he thought was a virus and, in frustration, while trying to fix it, he had deleted the installed tracking software.
An urgent call had been placed to the hotel from a police officer at the centre who had picked up a record of the American tourist’s phone in Surat Thani province from a previous trip to Thailand.
The officer was about to raise the alarm fearing that the foreign tourist had escaped off the island without authorisation.
Travellers entering Phuket by boat, plane and land vehicles are being recorded in real-time by agencies
The extent of the technology being deployed to protect the sandbox was confirmed by Police Lieutenant General Surachate this week who explained that travellers entering or leaving the island by plane, boat or land vehicle were being recorded in real-time.
Following the instruction of the National Police Commissioner, General Suwat Jangyodsuk, there is a particular emphasis on preventing visitors from the mainland entering the province who are already the subject of criminal arrest warrants with reports, this week, that a number were found during tighter screening of travellers ordered from Bangkok and supervised by ‘Big Joke’.
‘I came today to follow up on the work that the Royal Thai Police General-Commissioner ordered Phuket police to do in his last visit. The thing that I want to focus on today is the safety measures for arrivals, tourists and local people for travelling by air, land and sea. Right now, people wanted on arrest warrants must not be allowed to enter Phuket,’ Police Lieutenant General Surachate made clear. ‘We are using technology to help our officers at the Phuket Check Point, at Phuket International Airport, at both the domestic and international terminals, as well as at the nine main piers in Phuket, which we have allowed to open for people to enter and leave the island.’
Tightened security after the tragic murder of 57-year-old Swiss tourist Nicole Sauvain-Weisskopf in July
He explained that a programme was launched following the murder, at the end of July, of Swiss woman Nicole Sauvain-Weisskopf at Ao Yon waterfall to improve security at all local tourist attractions.
This has also involved reaching out to local village chiefs (kamnan) and leaders on the ground.
‘Tourist Police have already classified 126 tourist attractions on the island into three groups: high risk, risk and normal. I have ordered them to work with local police to examine the locations. Every attraction must have a team of police assigned to take care of each location,’ he outlined.
‘Sometimes tourists like to explore the places hidden away from people. To take care of tourists with our limited number of officers we need to cooperate with local police and with local officials, as well as community leaders such as kamnan.’
Top policeman confident of higher visitor numbers to Phuket from October to the end of the year
The senior police officer, and former Immigration Bureau Chief, was confident that the Phuket Sandbox will see a boost in the number of foreign tourists in the last three months of the year.
Local police will be ready to ensure the island is safe for them.
‘We are fixing all holes to create the highest safety standards and boost the confidence of tourists, in order to welcome tourists in the fourth quarter.’
United States is the top market since July 1st with 13% of Sandbox visitors originating stateside
So far, the United States has been the main market for the Phuket Sandbox scheme which opened on July 1st. The US has sent 3,222 of 24,190 tourists up to August 24th or 13.3%.
However, this week, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) Director in New York warned that US holidaymakers were currently showing their preference to Caribbean destinations and the Maldives where there were fewer restrictions involved in travelling.
Santi Sawangcharoen said tourists were indeed looking for beach destinations but many Americans were inhibited by the onerous requirements imposed on prospective travellers to the kingdom.
Potential tourists from the US irked by onerous rules compared to the Caribbean and Maldives
Mr Santi particularly referred to the requirement for multiple Covid tests which can amount to five tests in all on a 14 day stay on the island resort which the tourists must pay for themselves at quite a high rate.
The new US trend may come at the expense not only of countries such as Thailand but also European destinations where controls are similar or sometimes considerably less demanding than those required of foreign travellers to the kingdom.
Thailand’s Phuket Sandbox scheme has also slowed in August amid a background of rising political tensions in the country and negative advisories from western governments due to the country’s third wave which peaked in mid-August.
Scheme slowed in August and is on course for twelve thousand visitors but headwinds are growing
The scheme is on target to attract approximately twelve thousand visitors for the month, off by 14% on what was achieved in July.
Most of the visitors that have arrived off flights to Phuket International Airport have come from western countries led by the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Israel.
From Monday next, the 30th August, Thailand will be added to the UK’s red list of countries along with Montenegro which will mean that no visitors from Thailand will be able to enter the United Kingdom except for UK nationals who will have to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days on their return from Thailand.
Visitors from Ireland will also be allowed to travel from Thailand to the UK under the same conditions.
In the United States meanwhile, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a warning to US citizens advising them not to travel to Thailand.
New York TAT boss says they are differentiating the Phuket Sandbox from the rest of Thailand
Mr Santi explained that the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) is attempting to emphasise Phuket and Ko Samui as a separate offering from mainland Thailand because of the special conditions established by the Thai government.
He thought that this may yet yield more visitors.
He was particularly enthusiastic about the recent relaxation allowing visitors to move off Phuket to approved destinations which is already in effect.
This has seen over 4,000 Sandbox visitors moving to Bangkok, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Chonburi and Ko Samui.
Increasing coverage of protests in Thailand and negative portrayals of the kingdom on world media
However, the New York-based Thai tourism executive was also mindful of the ongoing coverage of political protests in America which are increasingly being carried by international TV stations as well as the high profile murder of 57-year-old Swiss tourist Ms Weisskopf.
This week saw international coverage of the actions of Thai police officer Colonel Thitisan Utthanaphon who is believed to have murdered a drug suspect while interrogating him at Nakhon Sawan police station.
Certificate of Entry process is a big barrier
There is also ongoing concern that Thailand cannot open to anything like the numbers of foreign tourists seen before April 2020 as long as the Certificate of Entry process administered by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is still in place.
The kingdom is currently only projected to achieve 150,000 visitors by the end of 2021 despite several high profile promotions including last year’s Special Tourist Visa and this year’s Phuket Sandbox followed by a less successful Ko Samui plus scheme.
Yet arrivals, so far in 2021, are less than 1% of the number seen even last year which was an unmitigated disaster for the country.
‘The Certificate of Entry applications are growing, but have not significantly increased,’ explained the TAT New York Director this week. ‘Moreover, tourists have to consider other factors such as the incident in Phuket and the political climate.’