Phuket Sandbox: A bit of chaos at the last minute

A sudden rule change and system glitches are making a mess of Thailand's program to drop quarantine for some inbound travelers, starting tomorrow. (Island Watch #9)

Permitting inbound travel without quarantine for the first time in 15 months is a major undertaking, requiring loads of planning and coordination. Some problems should be expected. But as Thailand prepares for the travelers who are set to arrive at Phuket Airport from other countries starting tomorrow, the situation looks chaotic. Even at this late stage, a lot of uncertainty remains.

A longer-than-anticipated wait for the Phuket Sandbox program to be officially endorsed in the Royal Gazette joined a rule change with less than 48 hours to go, along with other obstacles, to leave some travelers wondering if they can fly to Phuket as planned in July. Some are stressed, confused, exhausted and angry as they wait for answers from the often-unresponsive staff at Thai embassies.

“I’m no longer willing to waste any more time,” said Christian, a would-be tourist from Germany who shared his experience with me yesterday. “I will cancel everything. I feel sorry for the hotels and everyone who would have benefited from my visit. I would have stayed in Thailand from July 4th to August 5th.”

Christian was one of many travelers who learned yesterday that their applications for Certificate of Entry (COE) were rejected because they had not uploaded confirmation of three Covid-19 testing appointments to be spread over a mandatory 14-day stay on Phuket. It was the first he’d heard of this requirement, which Thai authorities suddenly added to an online COE application that was only updated to enable users to apply for entry to Thailand through the Sandbox program on Monday.

He needed to contact his hotel on Phuket, he learned, and ask staff to book his Covid-19 tests for 2,800 baht each. But hotels were also blindsided by the new rule. Frustrated by the last-minute uncertainty and worried that he wouldn’t obtain a COE in time for his flight, Christian pulled the plug on his trip. He is not the only one.

To be fair, many of the people who are involved from the Thai government, health establishment and tourism sector are doing their best. The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has continually updated its news site with the latest rules. The Dept. of Disease Control (DDC) selected which countries present a low enough risk to make travelers eligible for the program. On Phuket, hundreds of hotels were quickly upgraded to the required SHA+ status. Vaccinations ramped up as the province closes in on achieving the goal of fully inoculating 70% of its population.

A handful of travelers did successfully obtain their COE yesterday, clearing the way for them to enter Thailand through Phuket as planned. Others are still facing problems. Here are some of the claims I’ve seen over the past 24 hours:

  • Many travelers are stuck in “pre-approved” purgatory while trying to obtain the proof of Covid-19 testing appointments now required in the COE application. Varying levels of cooperation from hotel staff in Phuket and Thai embassy staff outside of Thailand have been reported. Some travelers say the embassy they applied through has not answered calls for weeks.

  • The DDC is taking longer than expected to scrutinize vaccination certificates while rejecting some of them for reasons unknown. One person said his COE was denied because he was vaccinated in the United States and applied for the COE through a Thai embassy in the European country where his flight to Thailand is scheduled to depart from. (No currently known rule states that vaccination and departure countries need to be the same.)

  • Some applicants who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine ran into a glitch. After seeing a message saying “date of second Covid-19 vaccination cannot be blank,” they were unable to input the date of their one and only shot in the second field. (This single-shot vaccine is approved by the Thai FDA.)

  • Other glitches have been reported in the online COE system. Some users couldn’t type into certain fields, and some partially completed applications were deleted when users attempted to upload more documents.

Many potential travelers gave up on visiting Thailand through the Phuket Sandbox long before the meltdown of the last few days. Some scrapped their plans when the mandatory length of stay on Phuket was extended from seven days, as announced late last month by the TAT, to the 14-day stay that’s now required.

Others were put off by an increase from one to three RT-PCR swab tests, which are required in addition to a pre-departure test. The high price of Covid-19 testing is another obstacle — it appears that a family of five with kids in their teens may need to pay at least 42,000 baht ($1,310 USD) for the testing alone. Travelers will likely need to stay put in their rooms until the results of their first tests conducted after arrival are available. They’ll also need to check in with officials every day.

Many of the tuk tuk drivers, like those who worked this stand on the Patong Beach road, and other people who earned their livelihoods from tourism left Phuket many months ago. (Photo: Lana Willocks)

Some potential travelers are concerned about being tracked, even if Thai authorities appear to have walked back a proposal to require tracking wristbands as opposed to only downloading a tracking app on a smartphone. Facial recognition technology is also being used, and travelers who take boat tours to nearby islands will likely need to wear a wristband that uses RFID technology. The tracking policy for travelers who say they do not have a smartphone is unclear.

Many people find the program too risky given how Covid-19 cases have continued to surface on Phuket in recent days. Transmission to vaccinated people is possible, as are false positives from RT-PCR tests. Testing positive for the virus results in being sent straight into a two-week hospital stay whether symptomatic or not. If case numbers spike in Phuket, the program could be scrapped altogether.

A serious Covid-19 outbreak in Phuket is more than a remote possibility. In recent weeks, cases have increased considerably across much of Southern Thailand and metro Bangkok. The highly transmissible Delta variant is currently spreading and “likely to increase.” The Beta variant, which is resistant to some of Thailand’s vaccines, was recently found in Bangkok and 12 Southern provinces.

Domestic travelers who have received only the first shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine or tested negative for Covid-19 at any point over the previous week are allowed to enter Phuket without quarantine, leaving the door open to the virus from elsewhere in Thailand. Or it could come from outside if inbound travelers were to catch Covid-19 before departure and introduce a variant into the country.

There are ethical issues when it comes to traveling to a country with a low vaccination rate, a rising number of Covid-19 cases and ICU beds running out in some areas. Recent polling suggests that close to half of Thai people are opposed to the Phuket Sandbox program. Prominent doctors are concerned, especially given that a low-efficacy vaccine was used for most inoculations in Phuket. The US Dept. of State is currently warning its citizens to “reconsider travel” to Thailand.

On the other side of the coin, how enjoyable would it be to visit a country where interprovincial travel restrictions are imposed on non-vaccinated people while dining in at restaurants is banned in nine provinces and loads of businesses will be closed on the island you’ll be visiting to start with? Bars are closed nationwide, even if a recent decision to allow alcohol consumption in Phuket’s restaurants improves the outlook for some travelers.

Overall, Thailand is the opposite of fun and lively right now. It’s downright gloomy. Unless you have a pressing need to enter the country quickly, I suggest holding off for a month or three as kinks in the reopening process get ironed out.

Come October, a much larger proportion of Thailand’s population will have been vaccinated. Transiting to a Phuket-bound flight in Bangkok will probably be possible. Sandbox-style programs should be open to inbound travelers in other Thai destinations, offering you more choice of where to spend that first week or two in the country. By then, a little hope might even be in the air. 🌴

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