The Phuket “sandbox”, Thailand’s bold attempt to reset its tourism industry by opening the island to vaccinated foreign visitors without quarantine, was approved on Tuesday, offering hope to battered businesses and a potential shot in the arm to the travel bubble concept across Asia.
Government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri confirmed the cabinet had officially given the scheme its blessing.
But Chinese tourists – who made up over a quarter of Thailand’s 40 million visitors in 2019 – are not expected to return to the Andaman Sea island in substantial numbers for several months yet, as Beijing keeps in place safeguards to prevent the virus seeping back from overseas.
That suggests a slow restart, which will give Phuket time to rebuild its decimated tourism industry – from out of work tour guides and boat owners, to derelict restaurants and bars – and welcome back the first visitors to uncluttered beaches and resorts on what was the world’s most visited tourist island before the pandemic, according to TripAdvisor.
“The morale and motivation of the [Phuket] people has been lost … the sandbox offers hope and people are very excited,” said Ravi Chandran, managing director of Laguna Resorts and Hotels.
“The bookings are coming from the UAE, UK, Germany, America, Taiwan, and the Scandinavian countries. Anything from international tourism in July would be a bonus. We’re optimistic.”
Phuket authorities say under the sandbox plan, just over 70 per cent of the population on Thailand’s largest island will be vaccinated before it reopens to inoculated international tourists from low- and medium-risk countries without the need for quarantine on July 1.
“No one has ever done this kind of intervention before where we have to tread between health and economic crises, so we’re still experimenting with everything,” said Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, the president of Phuket Tourism Association.
“Success” he said, would come from a smooth reopening “while keeping the number of infected cases down”.
After a two-week stay on the island, tourists with negative PCR test results can then travel on to the rest of the kingdom freely, teasing long-stay visitors back to Thailand, whose tourist economy lost about US$50 billion (S$67 billlion) last year.
It is a litmus test for the rest of Thailand – from Pattaya in the east to Chiang Mai in the north – but also a chance to reflate the travel bubble concept across Asia, which burst as outbreaks rattled through key travel hubs Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan.
Yet in a sign of the fragility of any plans during an ongoing global pandemic, health authorities on Tuesday reported 4,000 new cases across Thailand – including clusters of hundreds found at markets – amid warnings the sandbox could be quickly closed if cases surge on the island.
The caseload in mainland Thailand is at its highest since the pandemic began last year and mixed messages from the government, including a nationwide alcohol ban that has put a downer on the nightlife scene, have confused some potential visitors or turned them off completely ahead of the July 1 reopening.
But others have taken a gamble on Thailand, after long months stuck at home.
“We’ve had a lot of bookings from Hong Kong, Scandinavian and European countries,” said Krich Thepbamrung, president of the Andaman Guide Association.
He said there had also been strong interest from Russians and Indians, though they were presently barred from the sandbox scheme as they were in ‘red zone’ countries.
“I’m excited,” he said, adding that reopening was essential to healing the economy. He said there were now just 1,000 tour guides in Phuket but before the pandemic, there had been 10,000.
Thailand’s government has for months resisted pressure from the hospitality lobby, which is desperate to reopen and for quarantine to be definitively scrapped to lure back tourists.
The sandbox scheme is being closely watched with major hoteliers wary of the potential for Thai bureaucracy to weigh down the project and the government to issue conflicting information to the public.
In a televised address last week, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha declared Thailand would be fully open within 120 days, or by early October, but his stance has already shown signs of softening.
Urging a swift, unfussy and complete opening of Phuket, William Heinecke, the billionaire founder of Minor International, which counts Anantara and St Regis among its hundreds of hotels, said the sandbox model must “be promptly copied in other provinces throughout the country”.
To avoid the tangle of a sluggish government-led vaccine roll-out, Phuket authorities procured their own jabs outside state quotas and raced ahead of the rest of the country to inoculate islanders. They say they have vaccinated 50 to 60 per cent of the population.
The big ticket is Chinese tourists. Eleven million visited Thailand in 2019, with millions heading to Phuket during the Lunar New Year festival in 2020 shortly before the pandemic closed global borders.
But Chinese are reluctant to travel overseas – if they are able to at all – with stringent two- or three-week quarantines upon return and rules changing overnight as Beijing takes a zero-tolerance approach to dousing clusters of the virus.
Industry insiders fear the lucrative Chinese tour groups will not return until next year.
“There’s a big demand coming out of China and Phuket is still one of their top destinations,” said Bhummikitti of Phuket Tourism Association.
“But with the Chinese government restrictions on travelling, I think we still have to wait for a while.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.