While Thailand reports around 10,000 daily cases, mainly concentrated in Bangkok, Phuket's Public Health Office has reported numbers mostly in the single digits.
  • Under a plan called Phuket Sandbox, Thailand opened the island of Phuket to vaccinated travellers on July 1.
  • Travellers must be vaccinated to enter the island, but do not have to quarantine.
  • Locals said that they are proud of their island for reopening, but fearful of a Covid-19 outbreak.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

"Phuket has done the best in Thailand," said Sornchat Krainara, a 55-year-old business owner who lives on the Thai island of Phuket. The owner of The Living Art Company, which runs a gallery on the island, has only words of praise for the government when it comes to reopening her island to tourism.

On July 1, Thailand started admitting fully vaccinated tourists into the country. Dubbed the Phuket Sandbox, the programme marks the first time since the beginning of the pandemic that tourists have had relatively unrestricted access to the island's stunning beaches. In addition to being fully vaccinated, travellers are required to take regular PCR tests, use a tracking app, and stay in Phuket for at least 14 days before traveling elsewhere in Thailand.

On the first day of Phuket Sandbox, flights touched down in Phuket from Israel, the UAE, Qatar, and Singapore. In the first ten days, 3,917 people arrived at the island destination.

It's a far cry from pre-pandemic numbers, but it's also a marked increase from pandemic lows. For comparison, 175,000 tourists a week arrived on the island in 2019. In the first four months of 2021, just 28,701 tourists entered the country.

The success of the programme is crucial to jump starting Thailand's battered economy. Pre-pandemic, tourism accounted for more than 20% of the country's economy. At the Phuket Sandbox inauguration ceremony, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha called the plan "the hope of everyone in the whole country." (After the event, a guest who had attended the ceremony tested positive for Covid-19, leading the prime minister and others to self-isolate.)

Twelve days into the island's reopening, Insider spoke to six long-time Phuket residents to see how the tourism scheme is being received locally. Their reactions were split: Some were proud of Phuket for being the first part of Thailand to reopen to tourists, while others expressed concern for the future of their island should another Covid-19 wave break out.

Mixed reactions

Many of the Phuket residents who expressed doubts about the pilot programme said they didn't receive clear information or timelines in the lead-up to the reopening.

"I don't think the 'sand castle' can be successful because it is being managed so badly by the government," 23-year-old Irin Reungpoon, who first moved to the island for her studies as a teenager, said. "Sand castle" is a dismissive term used by critics of the plan, lifted from the Prime Minister's Sandbox speech.

Pimchanok KhetARan, a 29-year-old sales executive who has lived in Phuket for seven years, also has her doubts.

"There has been a lot of misinformation from the government side," she said. "We just need more solid information and a clear timeline so local businesses can prepare themselves better. [Otherwise] they have to absorb the expense of last minute changes."

Phuket native Supatchada Nualthongkaew, 28, is a receptionist in a company that runs a chain of tourist shops. She said authorities have concentrated their efforts on informing big business. "There should be more information for local people," she said. "What about merchants and small entrepreneurs who do not know how to prepare for the arrival of tourists?"

Bhumikitti Ruktaengam, President of the Phuket Tourism Association, the public arm that oversees tourism in Phuket province, says locals are involved.

"Phuket Sandbox has been the initiative of Phuket people, not just me," he said. "Ninety-five percent of people [on the island] benefit from tourism." He dismissed criticism of the plan but did not elaborate on how authorities were communicating with locals to address their concerns.

A concentrated vaccination effort in Phuket

In the leadup to the launch of Phuket Sandbox, Thailand concentrated its vaccination efforts on the resort island.

As of July 11, 85% of the population was partially vaccinated and 67% of the population had received both doses. The island's vaccination rate far exceeds Thailand's average: Nationally, 13% of the population has received the first dose and a mere 5% are fully vaccinated. Currently the only vaccines that are widely available to the public are imported Sinovac and AstraZeneca, produced under a license agreement in Thailand.

While Thailand reports around 10,000 daily cases, mainly concentrated in Bangkok, Phuket's Public Health Office has reported numbers mostly in the single digits.

Krainara, the gallery owner, is among Phuket's vaccinated residents. She said she received two doses of the Sinovac vaccine, the first in May, the second in June.

Reungpoon, a recent graduate who is currently unemployed, said she has no faith in the vaccines on offer and has chosen not to be vaccinated. "I am not confident," she said. KhetARan expressed a similar sentiment: "I am quite sceptical because of long term side effects."

Pipat Petchlorlean, a 26-year-old mechanical engineer who has lived in Phuket all his life, is more pragmatic about getting vaccinated. "I got Sinovac twice because it was the only choice and it's better than nothing," he said.

Hope for family reunions

Chris Greene, 59, teaches modern languages at the British International School in Phuket. He's been living on the island for 12 years. For him, Phuket Sandbox comes with the hope that he'll be able to reunite with his adult children, who he hasn't seen in 18 months.

Chris Greene was reunited with his son Charlie (Chaz) on Sunday.

His 20-year-old son Charlie was able to return to Phuket from the UK last week but was subject to two weeks' quarantine in a Bangkok hotel room because he wasn't fully vaccinated. Greene hopes his 23-year-old daughter Fransiska will have better luck getting fully vaccinated before returning later this month.

Beyond his hope to make the most of the Sandbox for his family, Greene sees the plan as a positive step for the island. "I think it's a good thing," he said. "They've just got to hold their nerve. If they don't and start closing everything down again, it'll just be a failure," he said.

Unanswered questions

Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, Deputy Governor of international marketing at the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), said the initiative's benefits are already being felt.

"The Phuket Sandbox [is] like a testing ground for the reopening of other destinations in Thailand," he said. "The main benefit will be immediate revenue for the local economy that sorely needs it." He estimates the windfall from the first eight days of arrivals at $4.6 million (R68 million).

But the plans is not without potential dangers. So far, a handful of imported Covid-19 cases have been reported in Phuket.

The first was a fully vaccinated man from the UAE who tested positive at his PCR screening on arrival. The next two cases involved children from Myanmar who were too young to receive vaccines. Since then, the mother of the children, a traveller from Switzerland, and a traveller believed to be from South Africa have also tested positive, Phuket Province Health Chief Kusak Kukiatkoon said in a briefing on July 12. The cases were detected before the travellers were allowed out on the island.

Several of the Phuket locals Insider spoke to expressed fear of Covid-19 outbreaks on the island. KhetARan, the sales executive, points to unanswered questions: "If there is another outbreak, what are we going to do? Shut down again? Then what's next?"

Krainara, the gallery owner, is preparing for an upcoming festival and a new exhibit in October.

"Phuket has done the best in Thailand," said Sornchat Krainara, a 55-year-old business owner who lives on the Thai island of Phuket.

"We're still working and preparing every day," she said. "In the past, the government sector, the Thai locals, expats, business people, they were in different groups. But because of Covid-19, they joined together."

Others see a more cynical angle.

Petchlorlean, the engineer, feels that reopening Phuket was a decision made by the authorities without much consultation and with one motivator in mind above all: "Phuket is their treasure and Phuket makes lots of money."

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