Assessing the Phuket Sandbox and looking ahead to Samui Plus

The first two weeks of Thailand's international tourism reopening in Phuket came with some bumps but also plenty of positives. (Island Watch #11)

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Two weeks after the grand launch of the Phuket Sandbox, the thousands of travelers who are partaking in this program to reboot inbound tourism in Thailand have reported many positive experiences and some frustrating outcomes. Ko Samui is now launching its own reopening as the government continues to focus on welcoming tourists from abroad, despite a dire Covid-19 situation at home.

The good news

So far, the Phuket Sandbox has fit the “experiment” label that I applied to it in a previous article. Some of the guinea pigs — cough — I mean travelers who arrived through the program didn’t know exactly what they were getting into, and it seems that Thai authorities are willing to make adjustments on the fly.

Despite an initial scramble and persistent difficulties with the online application process, the procedures on Phuket for immigration intake, Covid-19 testing and SHA+ accommodation have proven fairly robust. Many “sandboxers” — as some media outlets are calling the inbound travelers — are enjoying their mandatory 14-day stays while freely exploring Phuket. If testing negative three times, those who arrived as part of the July 1st launch will be able to travel elsewhere in Thailand today.

It’s important to state that the majority of reports from Sandbox travelers have been positive so far. I’ve reviewed many first-hand accounts from those who praised the welcoming attitudes of airport and hotel staff along with a mostly smooth arrival and intake process at the airport and beyond. Many of the negative comments refer to complexities and uncertainties in the Certificate of Entry (COE) application process and notably painful swab tests after arrival at Phuket Airport.

Two full weeks of Thailand being open to international travel with no quarantine apart from roughly six to 18 hours of waiting for the first Covid-19 test result, is indeed an accomplishment. On a continent where many countries still have strict quarantine measures in place, Thailand is leading the way towards a return to less restricted international travel. This should not be overlooked.

Another key point is how, so far, the Sandbox travelers who have endured seriously negative outcomes are few. As of yesterday, only 10 of the 5,473 international travelers who arrived over the first two weeks had tested positive for Covid-19 in Phuket. While any new case is a concern, especially given how anyone who’s been in close proximity to a person who tests positive faces quarantine, the Sandbox has not yet opened the Pandora’s box of cases that some people feared.

Also, I’ve yet to hear of any locals catching Covid-19 from a Sandbox traveler, nor of the introduction of any Covid-19 variants that weren’t already in Phuket. (Cases of the Alpha, Beta and Delta variants have all surfaced in the island province, but only through domestic transmission up to this point.) With an average of less than five confirmed cases in the province per day since the Sandbox launch, the overall Covid-19 picture in Phuket appears to be under control. For now.

Not without hiccups

All of the Sandbox travelers who test positive and, in some cases, those who travel with or near them on flights to Phuket are being forced into hospitals and quarantine hotels for at least two weeks. While it hasn’t been a surprise to see a handful of infections surface among Sandbox travelers, at least one woman did not expect to be quarantined after testing negative for Covid-19 upon arrival.

Only one day after arriving from Germany, she was quarantined when a man from the UAE who had sat close to her on a flight from Dubai became the first Sandbox traveler to test positive. She had to spend 52,000 baht ($1,590 USD) on an Alternate Local Quarantine (ALQ) hotel, more than doubling her lodging expense for the two weeks on Phuket, even after a refund from her original hotel.

The next Sandbox travelers to test positive were two children from Myanmar, drawing attention to the fact that kids under 12 are at a higher risk of catching Covid-19 because they don’t need to be vaccinated — only tested before departure — if entering Phuket with an adult. Following concerns that the kids would be isolated in a hospital by themselves, their father was allowed to stay with them. When the eight and nine year-olds are released, however, their dad will be quarantined.

Pitfalls like these are steering media attention away from the positives of the program. As a result, I won’t be surprised to see Thai authorities adjust protocols for Sandbox travelers who test negative but are deemed to be at risk of catching the virus due to proximity to an infected person. Local officials are proceeding cautiously from a health standpoint, but a reduction of quarantine from 14 to seven days for these “high risk” travelers who don’t test positive is one potential change.

That would bring the Sandbox rules more in line with those now in place for domestic travelers. Last week, a friend of ours who lives in Phuket was placed in seven-day quarantine in a hotel, paid for by the government, after she sat near someone on a bus from Ranong who tested positive for Covid-19 days after they had arrived. Our friend was fully vaccinated, making her no different from a health standpoint than the Sandbox travelers who are entering Phuket from abroad.

Her story also spotlights an increasingly strict outlook from Phuket officials who are keenly aware of how imperative it is to prevent outbreaks in their province. The controversial closure of all schools on the island for two weeks is one indication of their anxiety that an outbreak could topple the Sandbox altogether.

Starting today, Phuket is the only Thai province that requires domestic travelers from 34 “red” and “dark-red” provinces to be vaccinated (one shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine is accepted) as well as tested for Covid-19 before entering. Previously, domestic travelers needed to be tested or vaccinated, but not both. Phuket officials also ended a 14-day quarantine option for unvaccinated travelers who hadn’t been tested. All of this constitutes a fast shift from having some of the most relaxed domestic travel rules to being the most guarded of all the Thai provinces.

Given the fact that only around 14% of Thailand’s population has received a first vaccine dose, the new rules effectively ban the vast majority of Thai people from entering Phuket at all. That will disrupt the lives of some Thai Southerners who often need to reach the island for work or family reasons, but live in a nearby “red zone” province, such as Krabi. The rules also reinforce the resentment that some Thais were already feeling about how Phuket has been prioritized for vaccines despite having a much milder Covid-19 situation than many other provinces.

Phuket’s tightening of domestic travel rules threw a wrench into the plans of some Sandbox travelers as well. One American complained that his girlfriend, who he hasn’t seen for more than a year, would no longer be able to meet him in Phuket because she lives in a different Thai province and has not yet been vaccinated. For several months, they’d been planning to stay together while assuming she could show a negative Covid-19 test result to enter Phuket, as per the previous rules.

Otherwise, problems with the Phuket Sandbox have thus-far been limited to inbound travelers failing to follow the rules closely, for example by staying with family rather than at a SHA+ hotel as required. I’ve not yet heard of more serious breaches, such as Sandbox travelers sneaking out of Phuket before their mandatory two-week stay is up. Controls on entry and exit appear tight for the time being.

In sum, the first two weeks of the Phuket Sandbox program clarified some of the key risks to international travelers while also showing significant successes from an organizational standpoint. Sandbox travelers are putting money into the pockets of locals, and the program has value as a learning tool for Thailand and other countries now sketching out their own inbound tourism reopening plans.

Still, it has been jarring to see images of travelers frolicking around highly vaccinated Phuket while much of Thailand suffers from a lack of vaccines to go with surging Covid-19 cases, medical equipment shortages and containment measures that are deepening a severe economic crisis. The positive aspects of the Phuket Sandbox are rightfully overshadowed by the bleakness in much of Thailand. There is a strong argument that all inbound travel reopening programs should not have started until a much higher proportion of Thailand’s total population is vaccinated.

Samui Plus

Into this fragile situation comes Thailand’s second destination-focused program for restarting inbound travel with minimal quarantine: Samui Plus. Only around 100 travelers have registered to enter Thailand through this program after it was added as an option in the online COE portal recently. Though interest will surely rise, Ko Samui’s plan has received a tiny fraction of the attention directed at Phuket.

More restrictive than the Phuket Sandbox, the Samui Plus program requires travelers to enter Ko Samui via one of three special Bangkok Airways flights to be offered every day from Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, even if little info has been provided on how to transit between flights at two specified gates. (Interestingly, transiting in Bangkok is still not allowed for the Phuket Sandbox program.)

Once on Ko Samui, inbound travelers will be tested and required to stay at one of only nine ALQ hotels for the first week. For the first three days, they must also stay in an area which the “hotel has allocated.” Details on “allocated areas” are foggy, but all of the ALQ properties are beach resorts and guests will probably need to stay on resort grounds and the adjacent beachfronts over the first few days. This setup mirrors the “villa quarantine” that was tested on Phuket back in March.

Traveling elsewhere on Ko Samui, and most likely to certain nearby islands like Ko Matsum and Ko Wua Talap, will be possible on days four through seven “according to the specific route and travel program.” Exactly what can be done on these “sealed route” excursions is unclear, as is the cost or even if there’s scope for any kind of independent travel during days four through seven at all. I expect “sealed route” excursions to only be possible through pre-packaged tours.

If testing negative for Covid-19 after the first week, travelers will then be allowed to stay elsewhere on Ko Samui or head over to Ko Phangan and/or Ko Tao. Finally, after a third swab test at the end of the second week, which can be spent freely traveling on any of the three islands, Samui Plus travelers will be cleared to hit the mainland and travel elsewhere in Thailand. (More details from the TAT here.)

Samui Plus formally kicks off with a special flight from Bangkok later today, but this is purely ceremonial. Only members of the media will be on the plane, and no international travelers other than bloggers and social media “influencers” who were invited by the TAT are expected to arrive on Ko Samui until an unspecified later date. I find it difficult to see why anyone except residents of Ko Samui and the neighboring islands would opt for Samui Plus when the less restrictive Phuket Sandbox is available.

One reason could be that Ko Samui, with no confirmed Covid-19 cases for a week and very few over the last month, appears safer than Phuket. At this point, the risk of catching the coronavirus and ending up in a hospital on Ko Samui is considerably lower than in Phuket. This could become a key advantage for Samui Plus if a lot more of the Phuket Sandbox travelers catch Covid-19 in coming weeks.

But Samui Plus is far less egalitarian than Phuket Sandbox, a program that allows travelers to choose from hundreds of lodgings, including budget rooms. Most of the resorts that are mandatory for the first week on Ko Samui are relatively expensive, and it seems to me that the program was designed to help certain business owners as opposed to the island’s wider tourism industry. This could change in time, especially if few travelers choose Samui Plus over Phuket Sandbox.

As it stands, other sandbox-style reopening programs are still planned for the provinces of Chonburi (Pattaya / Ko Larn), Chiang Mai, Prachuap Khiri Khan (Hua Hin), Phetchaburi (Cha-am), Krabi (Ko Phi Phi), Phang Nga (Khao Lak) and Buriram. These destinations are tentatively expected to start welcoming inbound travelers with minimal quarantine between August and November, but nothing is certain at this point. So much will depend on vaccine availability and how well the first two reopening programs play out on Phuket and Ko Samui. 🌴

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