Phuket Sandbox: Thailand’s attempt to restore the tourism industry

Photo by Stephen Tasker on Unsplash

In 2020, Thailand became the second country to report a case of Covid-19, following the outbreak in Wuhan, China. Thailand’s response included closing its borders to most visitors. This was largely successful in limiting the spread of the virus, however as expected, it took a significant toll upon the tourism industry, with an estimated loss of $50billion in tourism revenue. As tourism generates about 1/5 of Thailand’s gross domestic product, the need to restore and revitalise this essential industry is becoming urgently apparent. Therefore, a pilot scheme has been designed and prepared to restore the Thai tourism industry, located on the island of Phuket. It began on the 1st June and has been called the Phuket Sandbox.

The Phuket Sandbox enables visitors from the 1st June to enter the island of Phuket without needing to quarantine. Currently, this is rare in Asia as Ravi Chandran, managing director of Laguna Phuket (a resort in North West Phuket), has stated that Thailand “will be the first country East of Maldives to open up.” Therefore, other Southeast Asian countries reliant upon the tourism industry will be watching closely to analyse the effectiveness of this scheme.

There are a series of rules visitors must comply with to travel to Phuket. These include: visitors must be fully vaccinated, must submit covid tests before flying and on arrival, need a Certificate of Entry, must download a location tracking app and can not leave the island to travel Thai mainland until 14 days have passed. However, the major positive is that visitors will not have to quarantine on arrival. It is expected that arrivals will pick up under this scheme however, the approach is gradual, and the results are expected to only be a fraction of pre-pandemic levels.

Phuket was chosen for this scheme as it is Thailand’s largest tourist island, welcoming 10million foreign visitors in 2019 alone. As Phuket can only be reached by bridge, boat, and plane, it is perfectly suited to this style of pilot scheme due to its isolated position. The choice to base the scheme only in Phuket seems to be a reasonable compromise considering the balance between the third wave of the virus in Thailand and the demand to keep resorts and businesses afloat after a tumultuous year.

In preparation, Phuket has been given priority access to vaccinations and so far, at least 70% of Phuket residents have received one dose of the vaccine. In comparison, only 10% of the Thai population has received one dose of the vaccination, having been left to cope with the consequences of vaccine shortages. On the 10th June, it was recorded that only 2% of its population had been fully vaccinated – a share that dwindles in comparison to much poorer neighbours, Cambodia and Laos.

Many Thai people are unsatisfied with the vaccine rollout and shortages. Although the minister of health, Anutin Charnvirakul, has vowed to vaccinate at least 70% of Thailand’s 70million residents before the end of 2021, many problems have already surfaced. The company has never manufactured a vaccine before, did not allow any journalists to their launch event and is already facing complaints about delays and reduced shipments from The Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia. Equally, the company which produced the vaccine is Siam Bioscience, owned by the billionaire Thai monarch King Maha Vajiralongkorn. Due to censorship laws, Thais can not insult the royal family as they risk a maximum 15-year prison sentence. These problems remain at the heart of the Phuket Sandbox pilot scheme, considering the prioritisation of vaccines to this island.

However, the vaccination rollout is not the only issue that clouds this scheme. Further problems may arise, with the prediction that infections may rise rapidly due to the influx of visitors. Currently, the state of the pandemic in Thailand is worrying, with 7,058 cases and 75 deaths reported in Thailand this Thursday. Public backlash may be expected if rising infections are traced back to tourists in Phuket.

Equally, although hotel owners have been eager for the launch of the scheme, many factors suggest the likelihood of tourists flocking to Phuket is low. The launch coincides with the monsoon season, typically the quiet period in Thailand. Additionally, due to Covid regulations in the country, serving alcohol in public is banned. Therefore, hotel guests only have the option to drink in their rooms. Taking these factors into account, many European tourists may choose to visit countries and resorts closer to home in Europe, as many have now opened their borders without the need to quarantine.

As the scheme begins, it will be interesting to see how the tourism industry in Thailand and simultaneously how the Covid-19 data is impacted by the influx of visitors now entering Phuket without quarantine.