Locals and tourists at an event to mark the opening of Phuket to international tourists on Patong beach. While some travelers started to arrive on the island after meeting the strict entry requirements, the island is still reeling from the devastation the pandemic has inflicted on the tourism industry. Photo: AFP / Thomas De Cian / NurPhoto

BANGKOK – The Phuket sandbox was successfully opened to fully vaccinated foreign tourists on July 1 but it remains to be seen if the experiment will flop due to surging numbers of Covid-19 cases and other life-threatening hazards.

Under the sandbox rules (and there are many), fully vaccinated foreign tourists are allowed to visit Phuket Island, Thailand’s prime Andaman Sea beach resort, without being forced to quarantine in a hotel for 14 days, as is still the case in Bangkok and elsewhere in the kingdom.

But visitors are also required to undergo three Covid tests during the first seven days of their stay and must remain on the island for the first 14 days, after which they are allowed to leave for some select destinations.

Prior to the scheme’s launch, nearly 70% of the island’s population of about 500,000 were vaccinated, including almost 100% of the staff working at 420 certified hotels and restaurants designated as Sandbox participants.

The scheme, the brainchild of various Phuket-based tourism and business associations with the backing of the Phuket governor and local authorities, was designed to prevent foreign visitors from spreading Covid to the local population and to make foreign tourists feel safe from the viral pandemic, which has now become a threat to even vaccinated people via the more contagious Delta variant. 

Most of the island’s new Covid cases have been found among Thais traveling to Phuket from other provinces, many of them being forced to flee Bangkok where the pandemic has forced new lockdowns and exacerbated unemployment. As of August 4, at least 46 incoming tourists had tested positive for Covid-19 out of 16,060 arrivals since July 1.  

On August 3, Phuket Governor Narong Woonciew sealed off the entire island to Thai travelers from other provinces, even if they were returning to their homes. All domestic flights to the island were also canceled, forcing some Phuket sandbox tourists to take buses to Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport to catch their flights home.

One interesting aspect of the Phuket sandbox is how Phuket-driven it has been.

Locals and tourists attend an event organized to mark the opening of Phuket to international tourists on Patong beach. Photo: AFP / NurPhoto / Thomas De Cian

“Everything that is going on in Phuket is the result of the local authorities and communities and they are the ones who decide whether or not to stay open,” said Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, deputy governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).

Phuket, which pre-Covid was the second wealthiest province in Thailand after Bangkok in terms of per capita income, is almost entirely dependent on tourism. In 2019, some 14 million tourists including 9 million foreigners visited Phuket, earning the island some 450 billion baht (US$13.5 billion) in revenue.

Last year, the island province’s tourism revenue fell to 108 billion baht, generated from tourists who arrived during the first quarter of 2021 before the Covid pandemic prompted a ban on foreign tourist arrivals nationwide. During the first half of 2021, the take was only 5.2 billion baht, according to the Thai Ministry of Sports and Tourism.

In pre-Covid Thailand, tourism generated about 18% of gross domestic product (GDP). With the third wave of Covid, which started in April leading to a spike in cases and deaths and forcing new lockdowns, the Bank of Thailand last week trimmed its forecast for gross domestic product (GDP) growth this year to 0.7%, down from the previous projection of 1.8%.

Chinese tourists, who accounted for 28% of the 40 million-plus tourist arrivals in pre-Covid 2019, face international travel bans at home, which will likely exclude their numbers from the Phuket sandbox.

The pandemic has been devastating for Thailand’s once-thriving tourism sector. Pre-Covid Phuket claimed about 3,000 hotels with 300,000 rooms, employing some 150,000 people. Currently, about 500 hotels remain open. 

Understandably, it was Phuket’s tourist business community including the Phuket Tourist Association, Thai Hotels Association/Southern Chapter, Phuket Hotels Association and Phuket Chamber of Commerce who were the main drivers of the Phuket sandbox scheme, with the support of the Phuket governor, community heads and the TAT.

Governor Narong had push hard to sell the concept to Thailand’s Cabinet and eventually get their approval in the form of a decree published in the Royal Gazette, the official stamp of approval.

This was somewhat remarkable under the government of ex-army general Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, whose seven-year tenure spanning coup and elected governments has done little to promote decentralization, especially in decision and policymaking.

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, center, posing for a selfie with an incoming tourist at Phuket International Airport as the first passengers arrived for the Phuket sandbox tourism scheme on, July 1, 2021. Photo: AFP / Royal Thai Government

 “The Phuket Governor can make decisions by himself and run the island as an independent nation almost, at least when it comes to Covid,” said Anthony Lark, president of the Phuket Hotels Association.

Should the sandbox prove a success, it would hopefully inspire Prayut to follow a similar local-driven approach to handling the Covid pandemic elsewhere in Thailand, as has been advocated by several opposition politicians.

Others watching the sandbox initiative closely include the tourism sectors of Bali Island, Indonesia, and Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam, both of which have been targeted for pushing similar schemes.

Despite its teething problems, some claim the Phuket example is already a semi-success story.

In July, Phuket attracted 14,055 international tourists, generating 809 million baht ($24.2 million) in revenue and the creation of 2,719 full-time jobs, according to the Tourism and Sports Ministry. Among the arrivals, some 23 tourists tested positive for Covid upon arrival, which was down to nine upon the second test.

Of course, such arrival figures are still a fraction of the monthly numbers in 2019, but the scheme’s advocates say they are a hopeful start.

“It was always going to be a baby-steps process with bumps along the road, because no one else has done it,” Lark said. “But it has been a lifeline for the Phuket people – the owners of restaurants and hotels,” he added. Lark claimed the occupancy rate at Phuket hotels had risen from 5% pre-sandbox to 10-15% in July.

Initially, the TAT estimated that the sandbox would attract 100,000 international tourists in the July-September period but that now looks optimistic in light of the spike in Covid cases during the third wave of the pandemic, which has now pushed some 29 of Thailand’s 76 provinces into partial lockdown.

Advance bookings for August stand at some 125,000 hotel rooms, which might amount to 15,000 tourists this month. Bookings are down, not up, from July. 

The scheme could still be called off if Covid cases spike exponentially on the island or if there are a significant number of cases of foreign tourists contracting the virus on the island.

Locals and tourists attend an event organized to mark the opening of Phuket to international tourists on Patong beach. Photo: AFP / NurPhoto / Thomas De Cian

“The last thing we want is for a foreign tourist to go home and realize that they contracted Covid in Phuket. That would really slam the door shut,” TAT’s Chattan said.

Meanwhile, on July 15, a second sandbox was launched with less fanfare of Koh Samui (Samui Island) in Surat Thani province on the Gulf of Thailand. Included in that scheme are Koh Tao and Koh Phangan.

As of August 5, Samui had received 190 tourists directly and 257 travelers via the Phuket sandbox.

On August 11, the government’s Center for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), which oversees all Covid-related policy, will decide whether or not to go ahead with the so-called 7 + 7 scheme, which would ease the Phuket sandbox conditions marginally by limiting the number of days tourists are stuck on the island to seven.

Under the plan, they could then visit seven nearby destinations comprising Krabi province, Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao, Koh Yao Noi and Koh Yao Yai in Phangnga.

To join 7 + 7, tourists must first obtain a certificate of entry from the government. The plethora of such regulations is likely to deter many potential visitors, according to Luzi Matzig, chairman of the Asian Trails Group, a travel agency specializing in the European market.

“If people are reluctant to come it’s not because they feel unsafe about Covid, it is because they face too many restrictions,” Matzig said. “While you are fully vaccinated a minimum of 14 days before arrival, and then you need to have three Covid tests after you arrive in Phuket. It is a bit of an overkill.”

Covid is not the only danger tourists face in the sandbox.

On August 3, Swiss national 57-year-old  Nicole Sauvain-Weisskopf, deputy of protocol of the Federal Assembly of Switzerland who had arrived on Phuket on August 13 under the sandbox scheme, left her hotel to visit a nearby waterfall. Two days later her body was found in a nearby stream, the victim of murder.  

Thai police were quick to investigate the crime and swifter still to apprehend a key suspect – a 27-year-old unemployed Phuket resident, who has confessed to strangling the tourist in a tussle to rob her. 

The incident is another stain on the scheme, which was already suffering from a spike in Covid cases throughout Thailand, including on Phuket – although to a lesser degree than many places since the island is one of the few places to have achieved herd immunity.

People relax at the pool at Vijitt Resort on Rawai beach in Phuket on July 1, 2021. Photo: AFP / Lillian Suwanrumpha

Matzig opined that the recent sandbox murder would not seriously dent tourist interest. “By the time Swiss and Europeans start traveling by October or November this year, most visitors will have forgotten about it,” he said. That may prove optimistic.

Phuket has had its fair share of tourism-related mishaps in the past. Most recently, there was the sinking of a ferry boat in July 2018 that killed about 50 Chinese tourists on board. An investigation found that the boat was unseaworthy and did not have an operating permit.

Chinese tourist arrivals to the island dropped off precipitously for six months after the incident. Such tragedies highlight the need for Thai authorities to tackle safety and security issues that have tainted Thailand’s tourism sector for decades. There is, for instance, the notorious taxi mafias of Phuket who have monopolized the transport sector on the island for decades to demand exorbitant fees.

Covid thus offers an opportunity for Phuket to clean up its own sandbox.

“The Phuket Governor has taken some action on the taxi overpricing because before July it was mostly only Thai tourists coming to the island and the taxi mafia tried to charge them farang (foreigner) prices and Thai visitors raised hell,” said Matzig.

While cracking down on overpricing is good, what really needs to be done is to undermine the mafias by bringing in more competition, and enforcing a free market through proper policing. “If Uber or Grab opened here they would find their cars smashed up overnight,” said one long-time Phuket resident.

Local authorities and the business community might also take this opportunity to assure that Phuket’s famed beaches, bays and coral reefs, currently enjoying a respite from the millions of tourists who visited the island pre-Covid, are better protected in the future.

“There has been an absolutely irresponsible promotion of tourism over the past seven years at a time when the rest of the economy was tanking and tourism was the only growth spot,” said Chris Baker, a Thailand-based historian and author of several books on Thai politics, society and culture.

“The impact on the local environment has been enormous, and there have been numerous tourism-related incidents such as ferries sinking and crimes against tourists. I think Covid will provide a wake-up call for the sector,” he said.   

A foreign tourist on the beach at Nai Harn in Phuket on July 2021. Photo: AFP / NurPhoto / Thomas De Cian

At the moment, Phuket is the only beach resort in the Asia-Pacific open to vaccinated foreign tourists “East of the Maldives and west of Hawaii,” but as the Covid pandemic eases it will find itself in a much more competitive environment.

“I think in time, people here, including the taxi drivers, have realized that if we don’t get our act together, if you don’t want to provide fairly priced tourism services, and consistently good quality hospitality, then people will choose to go somewhere else,” said Lark.

“There are going to be an oversupply of hotel rooms in 2022 and 2023, and once people start traveling again the destinations that have learned from Covid and adapted to it, and not gone back to the old ways – they will be like cream rising to the top,” he opined.