Phuket is attracting tourists despite rising cases of Thailand virus

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BANGKOK (AP) – A week after an ambitious but risky plan to open the Thai vacation island of Phuket to vaccinated visitors, signs were encouraging that the attempt to revive the decimated tourism industry was working, even as infections elsewhere in the country on Thursday record highs rose.

After seeing fewer than 5,000 foreign travelers in the first five months of the year, the island off the southwest coast of Thailand, whose economy is 95% dependent on the tourism industry, welcomed 2,399 visitors in the first week of July.

Phuket’s so-called Sandbox Plan is based on a strategy of vaccinations, tests, and restrictions – measures officials hope are tough enough to mitigate any COVID-19 threat, while also giving tourists enough freedom for a beach vacation Offer.

There were 17 new cases of the coronavirus on Phuket in the week leading up to the July 1 sandbox launch. The numbers rose in the first week but remained low with 27 new cases.

At the same time, Thailand has seen an overall surge in infections, with a record 7,058 cases reported on Thursday with 75 deaths, leaving many skeptical of Phuket reopening at the time.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has come under personal fire for handling the surge and political cartoons have depicted him sitting on the beach enjoying himself while Thais die from the virus.

Prayuth was also forced to self-isolate this week after a businessman he was in contact with when the sandbox started tested positive for COVID-19.

Last minute problems with the program resulted in some cancellations before it even started, and the original goal of 30,000 visitors for July has been reduced to 18,000. Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, president of the Phuket Tourism Association, said now that the program is up and running, he is expecting 30,000 visitors from outside Thailand in August.

There is still a lot of ground to make up in order to return to the 2 million foreigners Phuket saw in the first five months of last year at the start of the pandemic.

“The COVID-19 situation could have an impact on the bigger picture of the country, but I believe visitors will understand that Phuket is safe enough for them that it shouldn’t interfere with their travel plans,” he said.

Liron Or, a tourist from Israel, decided to go on a 10-day trip to Phuket with her husband and five children when she first heard about the sandpit plan three weeks ago.

They arrived on the first day and she said the opportunity to relax while on vacation outweighed all the precautions required.

“The process isn’t too difficult,” she said. “And this trip is such a joy for our children. There aren’t too many tourists on the beaches at the moment. ”

Travelers arriving elsewhere in Thailand are subject to a strict 14-day hotel room quarantine, but the sandpit plan allows visitors to Phuket to roam the entire island – the largest in the country – relaxing on beaches, jet skiing and dining out .

Visitors are only allowed from countries that are not classified as “medium” risk. Most so far have come from the USA, Great Britain, Germany, the United Arab Emirates and Israel.

Adult foreign visitors must provide proof of a full vaccination, a negative COVID-19 test no later than 72 hours before departure and proof of insurance that covers virus treatment, among other things. On the island, they must follow masking and distancing regulations and take three COVID-19 tests at their own expense – about $ 300 total – and show negative results.

After 14 days, visitors can travel to other countries in Thailand without any further restrictions.

Prior to the start of the program, about 70% of the island’s 450,000 or so residents received at least one dose of vaccine, and all frontline workers in restaurants, hotels and elsewhere were fully vaccinated.

So far, only one visitor has tested positive for the coronavirus; a man from the United Arab Emirates who was rushed to hospital for treatment.

Angela Luxy Smith, a British woman who works in Qatar and has been to Thailand regularly in the past, took the chance to return.

She and her husband plan to take full advantage of the program by staying in Phuket for the first 14 days and then traveling to other locations in Thailand before returning to Phuket for another week to complete a 40-day vacation.

She and her husband were amazed at how many restaurants were open in some areas that were more resident-oriented, but said that much of the beaches that are more popular with tourists are closed.

“It’s so strange, calm and closed – so sad for a lot of people who depend on tourism,” she said. “We hope people will come back very soon.”

Phuket currently has 131,809 room nights booked for July, of which 9,745 were booked for August and 1,094 for September.

Before the pandemic, about 20% of Thailand’s economy was related to the tourism industry, and other areas of the country are closely monitoring the Phuket experiment as they try to gradually reopen.

For Richard Van Driel Vis, his trip, which began this week in Phuket, marked the first time he had left the Netherlands since the pandemic began.

Compiling the documents and fulfilling the requirements for the trip is “difficult and stressful”, but in the end “it is totally worth it”.

“I’m sitting here in the bar and looking at the beach, in nice warm weather,” he said.

“It’s Phuket or stay home so I came here,” he said dryly.

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Associate Press Secretary Tassanee Vejpongsa contributed to this report.



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