Phuket reopened its borders to international visitors on July 1, welcoming fully vaccinated tourists as part of the “Phuket Sandbox” initiative. But a rise in Covid cases in the Thai destination over past week is already putting the scheme – seen as a potential model for other tourism-reliant destinations to follow – at risk.
At present, there are no restrictions on vaccinated travellers arriving in Phuket. The region has rules that differ to the remainder of Thailand, where international tourism remains closed and Covid-19 cases are spiralling. Vaccinated travellers wishing to explore farther afield than Phuket have the option of spending 14 days in the island region, before being cleared to visit other destinations across the country.
However, the Thai destination reported 125 new Covid-19 cases in the week ending July 27. The Thai government had previously said that if Phuket recorded 90 weekly cases, it would consider a temporary suspension of the sandbox programme.
Public schools and shopping malls in Phuket have already been closed, while gatherings of more than 100 people have been banned.
The majority of new cases in Phuket were recorded among local residents, rather than tourists, and all high-risk contacts on the island have been isolated to prevent further spread, according to officials. About 70 per cent of Phuket’s residents are fully vaccinated against the virus, compared to about 5 per cent nationwide. Only 26 vaccinated visitors out of the more than 11,800 that have arrived since July 1 have tested positive for the virus.
“We’re entering a tightening mode and reducing local activities on the island, but we have several circuit breakers in place before there’s a suspension to the reopening programme,” said Thaneth Tantipiriyakij, president of the Tourism Council of Phuket. “With the surge in infections, our focus right now is to assess the situation day-by-day and week-by-week.”
Besides the 90 weekly-case limit, other criteria for the suspension of the Phuket sandbox include the detection of infections in all three districts on the island or more than six sub-districts, the identification of more than three clusters, the uncontrollable spread of new variants, and an occupancy rate of hospital beds that exceeds 80 per cent of hospital capacity.
Any setback to Phuket’s reopening would damage Thailand’s plan to expand the sandbox model to other islands and beach resorts in the country. On July 15, an additional three islands in the Surat Thani province, Koh Samui, Koh Tao and Koh Phangan, also reopened to tourists.