On Monday night in Phuket, local police launched a crackdown on bars selling alcohol in Patong, a resort on the western side of the island with one business leader claiming it had been informally agreed with local officials and police. The news comes as Thailand trails far behind countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Cambodia with only 22.6% of the population fully vaccinated and a lack of clarity on when more provinces in the kingdom will be staging a restricted re-opening without quarantine and on what terms. On Thursday, the National Communicable Disease Committee floated a proposal to reduce the quarantine period from 14 days to 7 days for vaccinated arrivals by air but it comes with moves by the government to replace the current emergency provision with legalisation and reportedly an even larger oversight body.
A well to do and retired elderly couple talked this week about cancelling their Phuket Sandbox holiday when they were told it would cost them an estimated ฿35,000 for extra COVID-19 testing to visit both Ko Phi Phi and Ko Samui as part of their expensive 8-week holiday to Thailand. It comes with reports of a police crackdown linked with the sale of alcohol on the island and confusion over just when the country will reopen to foreign tourism and also how foreign tourists negotiate different local sandbox schemes throughout the country in addition to the demanding Certificate of Entry process.
A wealthy Canadian and his wife, this week, told the local newspaper in Phuket, The Phuket News, that had they known about the complex and demanding rules associated with the Phuket Sandbox scheme they would have holidayed this year in Portugal instead.
The news comes as police on Phuket launched a crackdown on Monday night targeted at bars and restaurants in Patong, a popular resort town on the west coast of the island, which had opened illegally and were also reportedly, both openly and covertly, selling alcohol to customers which is prohibited under current laws during the COVID-19 crisis.
Provincial Police Region 8 boss orders crackdown on the sale of alcohol in Patong bars and restaurants
Patong is formerly the home of the island’s famous nightlife industry which is now mostly shuttered under rigorous new public health regulations as tourism officials seek to attract a more affluent and upmarket type of visitor.
The crackdown was ordered by Police Major General Saksira Phuak-am, the commander of Provincial Police Region 8 who is also the de facto head of police on the island following a gambling scandal which saw former top brass removed from their posts.
On Wednesday, the 22nd September, Phuket Police issued a statement and said that an order had been issued to: ‘strictly inspect, control and supervise various places in accordance with the measures ordered by Phuket Province according to Phuket Provincial Order No. 5409/2564, regarding the measures to close the place or prohibit activities that are at risk of spreading the disease in accordance with the Communicable Diseases Act 2015, Sections 34(6), 51.’
Published article highlighting alcohol being sold on Phuket prompts action from higher authorities
It came after a writer of an influential travel news publication published a story giving his ambiguous verdict on his experience of the Phuket Sandbox.
The lukewarm review referred to the island’s lack of nightlife and entertainment as a major turn off for many of Phuket’s millions of regular foreign tourists who made it one of the world’s most sought after destinations with over 22 million visitors a year before the Thai government shut down the foreign tourism industry overnight on the 5th April 2020.
The report, while highlighting the beauty of the location and quieter nature of the island because of the restrictions imposed by authorities as a plus for certain types of visitors, also mentioned that alcohol was being served in some restaurants and bars disguised in coffee cups and other subterfuges.
Local business leader says bar and restaurants in Patong were given informal approval from officials
It follows reports that some bars and restaurants in Patong had been given the go-ahead by certain local officials both within the Patong Police and the Patong Municipal Authority to facilitate visitors looking for alcohol.
This was the position according to Mr Weerawit Kreuasombat who is the President of the Patong Entertainment Business Association (PEBA).
Reports suggested that bars on the Bangla Road and other locations in Patong had been allowed to open and sell alcohol, both of which are in contravention of strict COVID-19 public health orders issued from Bangkok.
Canadian couple on an 8 week $16,000 holiday to Thailand faced a further ฿35,000 bill for extra tests to travel to Ko Phi Phi and Ko Samui
Meanwhile, a Canadian couple on a five-star holiday to Thailand over 8 weeks for which they have a budget of $16,000 complained that despite already being forced to pay out ฿16,000 for three COVID-19 tests while in Phuket in addition to tests before they left Canada, they were being asked to pay out a further ฿35,000 for additional tests as they planned to travel to Ko Phi Phi and later on to Ko Samui before returning to Phuket for two weeks before flying home to Canada.
They said this required 10 further Covid tests at a cost of ฿3,500 each for the couple including two tests before they were cleared to board their plane back home to Canada.
They explained that nowhere was this requirement made clear to them at the outset as they planned their holiday and if it was in the fine print of the different local tourist schemes, then the whole approach is simply too complex to follow.
‘Not boasting, we are retired and relatively well to do. We have booked all through SHA+ hotels, all five-star hotels. We are not trying to skimp on the costs. We are just trying to figure out what all this extra testing is for,’ the elderly man said this week. ‘If I had known this before, I would have gone to Portugal and spent my time there with no issues of any kind.’
Fine print and bewildering rules and regulations make it very difficult for foreign visitors to understand
The man explained his position based on what he had been able to find out about the bewildering set of rules and regulations that are in place and governing people attempting to have a carefree holiday in Thailand.
‘Sandbox tourists should be allowed to travel to open tourist areas after completing 14 days in Phuket. We should not be at the mercy of the local provinces with conflicting rules,’ he pointed out.
Shocking story of German woman moved to Alternative Quarantine at her own expense has turned off many would-be travellers to Phuket
Top tourists soured by red tape, hyper regulation is killing off enthusiasm for the Phuket sandbox among fans
‘If we are forced to take a test to travel to Phi Phi, then another test to return to Phuket, another test to travel to Samui, another to return from Samui to Phuket, and yet another to take the flight home, it seems to indicate to us that the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) is asking us to spend $1,100 more in testing after spending $700 ($200 for the initial PCR test to come to Thailand) in testing (for two people) and that Thailand does not believe in Pfizer vaccinations.
Why do foreign tourists require so much testing?
The Canadian then queried why already vaccinated visitors should need so much testing.
A recent update from the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) in mid-September showed that only 90 or 0.28% of the 32,005 visitors who had entered during the Phuket Sandbox scheme including the Canadian couple had tested positive for the virus.
The result of the couple’s final and third test came back negative on September 18th last.
‘Keep in mind that Canada is 65% to 75% vaccinated, and has opened to receiving visitors from all over the world. All that is required is that you are fully vaccinated and have tested negative through one PCR test within 72 hours of travel,’ the man explained. ‘With all this, one has to ask what is the point of vaccination? It is not practical to keep on taking tests that cost $100 each when we are fully vaccinated with the Pfizer Vaccine.’
Couple spent 8 weeks organising documentation yet did not know about travelling within Thailand
He criticised the lack of clarity and coherent information that was made available to them before their trip to Thailand which took eight weeks to organise including demanding documentation requirements to obtain their Certificates of Entry in the first place.
The pair revealed that they had considered returning home over the demanding regime of further tests that were being required of them to travel on to Ko Phi Phi and Ko Samui.
‘If we are asked to take these tests, we will go back home, and not spend another $1,100 for travelling to Phi Phi and Koh Samui, and Phuket,’ the Canadian husband warned. ‘When we applied to come here, we were given to believe that after two weeks in Phuket, and three negative tests, we are free to travel within Thailand, but that does not seem to be the case.’
Some good news for the Canadian couple
However, there was some good news for the Canadians who were later informed that the tests required for the two to return from both Ko Phi Phi and Ko Samui would only be less expensive Antigen tests.
The couple was contacted by the SHA+ manager at their hotel.
‘Right now travelling to Samui will require a Samui Health pass, and vaccination certificates, and no test. That is good news too,’ the Canadian said. ‘This was first confirmed by Bangkok Air, and then by the SHA+ manager at our hotel.’
Local problems on Ko Phi Phi with Covid 19 outbreak among workers created more uncertainty over plans
However, there is some issue with a local outbreak among construction workers on Ko Phi Phi which started in mid-September.
‘The Phi Phi situation is until September 24th, and they do not know what the rules will be, and they do not know why Phi Phi wants a PCR test from Sandbox tourists,’ he clarified, giving some idea of the headache involved for foreign visitors negotiating their way around Thailand which has been subdivided into local tourist schemes, each with a different set of rules and standards as well as different circumstances.
Not satisfied with how foreign tourists are being handled in Thailand, different from local tourists
While the Canadians are not returning home and have received some positive news, they are not fully satisfied with the way foreign tourists in Thailand right now are being handled.
‘We love Thailand and Thai People, that is why we are here,’ said the husband. ‘We agree that tourist safety is of paramount importance, but going overboard and creating unnecessary requirements compromises the health and safety, it does not enhance it. We are also treated differently than local tourists. Local tourists can take antigen tests, but we are asked to take the RT-PCR test.’
Outlook for a broader reopening of Thailand grew cloudier in the last week with October 1st date for five provinces dismissed by Health Minister
The current outlook on the wider reopening of Thailand has now become just as hazy with the planned reopening of 5 provinces in October 1st as proposed by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) simply dismissed last week by the Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul on the basis that their proposals needed to be presented and vetted by the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) and various medical committees before being approved.
Similarly for the reopening of Bangkok where only 37% of the population is fully vaccinated and where Governor Aswin Kwanmuang has laid down conditions that must be achieved before any reopening plan for the capital city is even considered.
At the earliest, it could be November 1st but it could well extend many weeks beyond this.
Nowhere near the number being quoted by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) in estimates
There is also a dawning realisation by policymakers and those promoting the reopening of Thailand’s tourism industry that lofty figures in excess of 1 million visitors will not be achieved under the ‘new normal’ form of tourism with its regulation and restrictions.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) had estimated that over 1 million visitors would enter the kingdom in the final quarter of 2021. This figure now seems entirely implausible.
The current estimate by most analysts is that Thailand will achieve only 0.38% of the figure achieved in 2019 or 150,000 visitors in total by the end of 2021.
Ongoing struggle against COVID-19 on Phuket sees hospital bed utilisation rate fall sightly to 89%
In Phuket, now effectively the mainstay of the tourism industry and responsible for 78% of foreign visitors in July, apart from a police crackdown on alcohol being carried out in Patong, there is also an ongoing struggle with a virus outbreak which had seen up to 90% of available hospital beds occupied by virus patients and infections recorded at over 200 cases per day.
It is understood public health officials are confident that the outbreak, which has originated in factories and processing centres linked with the island’s fishing industry, will be reined in.
On September 23rd, 254 cases were reported following 239 cases on the 22nd and 254 cases the day before on September 21st.
The rate of utilisation of hospital beds has fallen to 82.39% as authorities scramble to fly in more AstraZeneca vaccine jabs to administer third booster shots to the island’s population to help contain the outbreak.
New disease law appears to foreshadow a permanent and even bigger public health body similar to the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA)
The news comes as Thailand’s National Communicable Disease Committee has floated a proposal to cut the quarantine period for fully vaccinated visitors to Thailand to 7 days.
The news was announced by Dr Opas Karnkawinpong, the head of the Department of Disease Control at the Ministry of Public Health.
Such a regime was already in effect when the latest and most deadly outbreak driven by the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus took off in May and June this year.
Thailand has also moved this week to propose an updated and amended version of the Communicable Diseases Act of 2015 which is designed to replace the Emergency Decree.
However, officials are briefing the media that this may see an even larger public health body to replace the current Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) which raises the question about how long this ‘new normal’ in foreign tourism will be in existence.
With such a regime, no return to normality for the industry can be envisaged.
Thai vaccination rate trails some ASEAN countries
Currently, Thailand only has 22.8% of its population fully vaccinated or 15.9 million people with 46 million doses administered.
It trails behind Singapore on 79.95%, Cambodia on 64.4% and Malaysia on 59.4%.
For a country so dependent on foreign tourism and external trade, the delayed vaccination campaign is being seen as a shocking own goal by the government which has caused severe economic damage.