Phuket pushes for July reopening as quarantine shortened for inbound travelers

Island Wrap #33: Health & Tourism edition for March 12-26, 2021

This special edition of the Island Wrap looks at a busy two weeks in Thailand’s fight against Covid-19 and its quest to get foreign travelers flowing back into the country this year. You’ll also find some good news on vaccines to go with my selections of interesting and unusual stories from coastal Thailand.

If you missed the first part of this two-post Island Wrap yesterday, it looks at Thailand’s efforts to combat coastal erosion and ocean garbage while also covering sea turtle news and some recent travel articles that you might enjoy.

Covid-19 update

First, the good news: Samut Sakhon province, a heavily populated area southwest of Bangkok where the worst Covid-19 outbreak of the whole pandemic in Thailand began late last year, is no longer the primary hotspot.

Reporting only 10 to 20 cases in recent days, Samut Sakhon and its fishing hubs are now open to interprovincial public transport. Thousands of migrants who could not leave dorm facilities for months have their freedom back. The governor made a full recovery after a spell in critical condition with Covid-19. And national authorities shifted the province to the orange ‘highly controlled’ status, the same as Bangkok. For all of this, Thailand’s Public Health officials deserve a round of applause.

Unfortunately, their success in Samut Sakhon does not mean that Thailand appears close to fully eradicating the virus like it did in early 2020.

Bangkok is now the worst-affected area, even if case numbers there remain far below those reported in Samut Sakhon a few months ago. Outbreaks keep popping up in different parts of the megacity and surrounding provinces, drawing medical personnel into a game of whack-a-mole with the virus.

Six markets were ordered closed in Bang Khae on the northwest side of Bangkok after several hundred cases linked to a fresh market surfaced earlier this month. Southeast of the Big Mango, more than 20 construction workers tested positive in Samut Prakan last week. A day later, testing crews found 393 infections at two immigration detention centers in Bang Khen and Suan Phlu in the Sathorn area.

Bangkok officials reported 98 total cases yesterday. Over the last few days, 67 ‘walk-in’ cases — i.e. not found via proactive testing and contact tracing — seem to show some uncontrolled spread in the Thai capital. The virus is out there.

In addition to mass testing, Public Health officials are targeting vaccines as part of their Covid-19 defense strategy. For example, 7,000 at-risk people in the Bang Khae area received Sinovac jabs over the past two weeks. Other pandemic warriors include a squad of labrador retrievers that can sniff out infections at a 95% rate of success, according to dog-loving researchers at Chulalongkorn University.

With a few exceptions, mainly in border provinces like Songkhla and Tak, almost every Thai province outside of metro Bangkok has reported no Covid-19 cases for several weeks or, in the majority of provinces, months. Domestic travel restrictions are limited to health screenings upon entry at a few provinces, if that.

Thailand’s total pandemic numbers currently stand at 28,577 cases and 92 deaths, with 1,453 infected patients currently being treated.

Good news on vaccines?

After much criticism, Thai authorities are finally clearing vaccines other than Sinovac and AstraZeneca for use in the country. The single-shot jab from Johnson & Johnson became the third vaccine approved by the Thai FDA on Thursday, and an FDA spokesperson revealed that Moderna and India’s Bharat Biotech were actively seeking approval for their vaccines in Thailand. It remains unclear if the government is considering purchasing any of these vaccines.

Additionally, a vaccine being developed domestically by researchers from Mahidol University has entered the human trial phase. The hope is to begin mass production of this and at least one other ‘homegrown’ vaccine by early 2022.

Total inoculations in Thailand now stand just shy of 100,000. Hoteliers, airlines and tourism firms are all pressuring the government to speed up vaccinations as business leaders lobby for workers from their industries to be prioritized. On the other side of the debate are some in the medical sector, including an anonymous doctor from Siriraj Hospital who told Thai Enquirer “that we have a lot more leeway and lag time” compared to harder-hit countries like the US and UK.

That statement strikes me as tone deaf when workers and businesses in the travel and tourism industries are struggling. Examples include Thai Airways, which has failed to issue refunds due a year ago; and Phuket tour bus operators who are “being sued for missing their lease repayments, with some facing bankruptcy.”

After a ‘high season’ with almost no foreign tourists, many in the tourism industry are simply trying to survive through the approaching rainy season.

Three-phase reopening

Last week, the government announced an officially approved plan with an April 1st start date that cuts quarantine lengths for many inbound travelers. Those who arrive in Thailand with a Covid-19 free certificate (CFC) as proof of a recent negative test result will spend only 10 days in a quarantine hotel, while vaccinated travelers with a vaccination certificate (VC) face only seven days in quarantine.

The sticking point is that travelers from countries where variants of the coronavirus have been found in the general public may still face a 14-day quarantine, although an official list of countries with variants has not yet been announced. In recent days, I’ve heard from two non-vaccinated travelers who are booked on flights from the US to Thailand early next month and have been informed that their quarantines will be 10 days, despite clear evidence of Covid-19 variants spreading in the States. Prices of ASQ hotel stays are also being reduced to reflect the shorter durations.

The plan calls for these reduced quarantines to stay in place until October 1st, when a tentative transition to no quarantine for vaccinated inbound travelers might kick off in areas of Thailand where 70% of the local populations have been inoculated. I wish that I could offer more concrete info, but as with so many things in Thailand, we’ll be encountering grey areas until real changes happen. Stay tuned.

Phuket first?

As I was writing this article, the Center for Economic Situation Administration lent credence to a torrent of recent speculation that vaccinated tourists might be allowed to enter Phuket from abroad with no quarantine by July 1st.

Under a ‘Phuket Sandbox’ proposal first developed by local officials in Phuket, inbound tourists flying into the island’s airport would be tested for Covid-19 and then tracked through a mandatory smartphone app. Otherwise, they’d be allowed to move freely around the island for a full week after arrival, starting on day one. Beyond that week, they could go anywhere in the country they like.

The Friday meeting was chaired by the Prime Minister, making it the first time that he has formally thrown his weight behind plans which focus on opening certain islands or provinces to inbound tourists before others. ‘Phuket Sandbox’ is seen as a potential pilot project that could be rolled out at other destinations on or before October 1st, but only if all goes well on Phuket. Tourism leaders and officials on Ko Samui and in Pattaya are also pushing to become ‘Sandbox’ destinations.

The plan depends on inoculating 70% of Phuket’s population before quarantine can be dropped for inbound travelers. This means that “at least 466,587 residents living on Phuket need to receive two doses each” by July 1st, according to Bangkok Post. The key decision made in the Friday meeting granted a request from Phuket’s private sector to allot 900,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to the island province. Residents can already register for vaccination through an online form.

Even if this local vaccination rollout goes smoothly, the plan still presents tricky questions related to logistics and public health. The government and locals will need to sort these out before the plan gets official approval.

Phuket is a whole province, not some isolated island accessible only by seaplane. Forcing drivers to obtain permission to use the only bridge can be a nightmare, as evidenced by the reopening of Phuket to domestic travel in May 2020. Easily launched from practically anywhere along Phuket’s long coastlines, small boats can reach other provinces quickly. The uncertainty of quarantine-free tourism could be a major headache for drivers of boats, trucks and buses, as well as any local who regularly needs to pop over to Phang Nga or Krabi, for example. As for domestic travelers, would they need to be vaccinated to enter Phuket?

Then there’s the 30% of Phuket people, notably children, who would likely not be vaccinated before potentially infected tourists are allowed to galavant around the island as they please. Evidence that Covid-19 infections rarely cause serious illness in children is not likely to go over well on an island that closed many of its schools in response to only a few Covid-19 cases late last year.

One option is to only allow vaccinated tourists from countries with minimal Covid-19 cases to skip quarantine. Another is to keep inbound tourists confined to their resorts for their first few days on the island, enabling them to use swimming pools and other facilities until doctors are confident they won’t spread the virus. I expect to see some combination of these between July and year’s end.

The bottom line is that many moving parts need to fall into place — on top of mass vaccinations — to make July a realistic start date for a non-quarantined Phuket. Still, by aiming for July 1st, supporters in Phuket and other destinations are giving themselves a solid shot at more inbound arrivals by October.

Social media corner

Ever heard of the “island” shaped like Thailand with a name, Ko Rup Prathet Thai, that means “Picture of Thailand Island”? Amazing, right? Well, quite a few people on Thai-language social media thought so after Facebook user Pakornkarn Tayansin posted drone images of this new “unseen” attraction. Before you get too excited, know that this “island” is actually a wee peninsula formed by humans in the middle of a small, human-made pond. If it still sounds like a thrill, here’s where you’ll find the Thailand-shaped island out in rural Trang province.

In other news

New vehicle ferry in Gulf to set sail soonBangkok Post
If you’re up for a 20-hour ride on a 26-year-old ferry with private cabins, a test run of the Chonburi to Songkhla vehicle ferry is set for next month. A stop at Prachuap Khiri Khan might make this route more viable down the road.

Chinese fishing boats abandoned in Phuket catch fireThe Phuket News
The large trawlers had sat neglected off Laem Nga for a decade.

Thai motocross drivers go spelunking, damage historic Krabi caveCoconuts Bangkok
“Local officials today were cataloguing the broken stalactites and wheel ruts left in Krabi province’s historic To Luang Cave, saying they would file a complaint against the motocross bikers who decided to stage a race inside.”

320 kg of ganja found floating in Satun bayAchadthaya Chuenniran for Bangkok Post
The brick weed was found off remote Ao Talo Udang in the remote south of Ko Tarutao, not far from Malaysia. Meanwhile, hemp-related Thai stocks “hit new highs” and food made with cannabis is being served all over the place.

Krabi cops uncover memorial sculptureAnchalee Kongkrut for Bangkok Post
Krabi police have found a 100 million baht sculpture commemorating the 2004 tsunami they had forgotten they were keeping.” Depicting hands reaching from waves, the two sculptures were made by the late French artist, Louise Bourgeois.

Thailand bars Songkran festival water fights again due to pandemicReuters
Unlike last year the Thai New Year from April 13th to 15th will not be canceled, but authorities will be looking for anyone daring to splash water on anything other than a Buddha image. It will still be a busy travel weekend.

In loving memory of well-known Pattaya expat Michael “MC” CalmAdam Judd for The Pattaya News

Coastal oddity

Interest in skateboarding is booming in Thailand, prompting a coffin maker “to breathe new life into some of the wooden caskets he had lying around his Bangkok workshop.” An AFP report by Lillian Suwanrumpha documents the work of Anusorn Yungyearn, a 30-year-old who’s using his craftsmanship to recycle unused coffins into skateboards featuring “the Thai angel and the traditional Thai border on the board’s edge.” I hope to see some deadly tricks. 🌴