The good, the bad and the funny: Highlights from the 'Phuket Sandbox' launch

A summary of the events and media scrum that accompanied Thailand's reopening to overseas travelers with little to no quarantine on July 1st. (Island Watch #10)

Airport workers sprayed an arch of water to welcome the first 23 international travelers to legally enter Thailand with minimal quarantine since March 2020. They arrived on Etihad Airways flight EY430 from Abu Dhabi, disembarking in Phuket shortly after 11:00 AM on July 1st. Despite the rising number of Covid-19 cases and economic desperation, this was a moment to savor.

Dozens of reporters joined the Prime Minister and many others at Phuket Airport as 323 travelers arrived on four international flights during the first day of the Phuket Sandbox program. The travelers must have felt like celebrities. Though I was not in Phuket, I followed the developments closely and put together a highlight reel, of sorts, featuring coverage of the reopening in various types of media.

Welcome “sandboxers”

As of yesterday, 1,896 travelers had arrived in Phuket through the Sandbox program. All arrivals over the first two days originated from the Middle East and Singapore, with the first flights from Europe only arriving on July 3rd. By then, around 6,000 travelers had successfully registered for the Sandbox program, though 379 Certificate of Entry (COE) applications had been rejected as of July 1st.

Despite the “regulatory chaos” surrounding the program and a worsening Covid-19 situation in some parts of the country, the Tourism Council of Thailand predicted on July 1st that roughly 3 million tourists could arrive from abroad before the end of this year “under the best-case scenario.” The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) revised its forecast down to 100,000 arrivals during the third quarter.

“The people of Phuket should be proud of their mission for the nation, for your country,” said Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha before attending a meeting at the Royal Phuket City Hotel and then heading to the airport to meet the first arrivals. It was a hopeful message, even if 75% of respondents to a recent poll disagreed with Prayut’s plan to fully reopen the country by mid-October.

Some of the newly arrived travelers had things to say as well.

“What could be better than getting stuck on a paradise island?” asked British tourist Ian Shore, as quoted by Reuters shortly after his arrival on July 1st.

Thai blogger “Madame Mamuang” wrote a detailed account of what it was like to be on the second plane to arrive on July 1st in a post titled, simply, “Going through Phuket Airport.” “All immigration staffs looked happy. They talked to us, asked tons of questions, wished us a happy stay. I never felt so welcome.”

Some of the travelers paused to take selfies with the Prime Minister, who was flanked by an entourage of ministers and officials. Other travelers, either unaware of who he was or a bit sleepy from the long flight, walked right past him.

Many “sandboxers” soon began to share their experiences — most of them positive — on social media. A Phuket Sandbox group on Facebook bristled with posts from recently arrived travelers on Phuket, as well as those still slicing their way through a glitchy COE application process back in other countries.

A handful of travelers were already “roaming free” around Phuket by the night of July 1st. But as Nianne Hendricks pointed out, the Phuket Sandbox is not a quarantine-free program, strictly speaking. Several travelers needed to quarantine in their hotel rooms for 12 hours as they waited for negative results of their first Covid-19 tests after arrival, which cleared them to leave quarantine. They’ll need to test negative twice more over the course of 14 days before traveling beyond Phuket.

Some of the side shows

The festivities ramped up with a fireworks display over Patong Beach on Saturday, followed by the reopening of the Lard Yai “walking street” market in Phuket town on Sunday evening. Thai PBS World published a photo of the “command center” where live feeds from CCTV cameras are helping police “to track the movements of foreign tourists on Phuket.” They’re also being tracked by smartphone apps.

Covid-19 didn’t stay out of the conservation for long. On Monday, it was revealed that a Thai Chamber of Commerce executive who’d attended the reopening ceremonies tested positive, prompting the Prime Minister to isolate at home. Some government attendees, including the Prime Minister and the Public Health Minister, were criticized for gathering around a table, sans masks, on July 1st.

(Translation: “General Prayut and other ministers relax by the sea in Phuket while waiting to welcome the tourists. Some of them are not wearing masks.”)

A warning went out to domestic travelers who’d taken a flight from Bangkok to Phuket on July 1st after one caught Covid-19. Four schools closed in the Kathu area of Phuket on July 5th, after a student and parent tested positive. Keen to prevent a serious outbreak, Phuket Governor Narong Woonsiew announced that 14-day quarantine is no longer an option for domestic travelers entering Phuket.

Authorities are stopping foreigners who attempt to leave Phuket via Sarasin Bridge by demanding proof that they’re not in Thailand through the Sandbox program or, if they are, that they’ve been cleared to travel elsewhere after day 14. Anyone attempting to sneak off Phuket by boat might be intercepted by Navy and Marine Police patrols. It appears, however, that airport checks could be tighter.

Picks from the media scrum

Here are seven choice excerpts from the many news reports that were published about the Phuket Sandbox over the past week or so:

“What looks like a dream of a lost paradise for some travelers is a nightmare for the locals. For one and a half years, the island has fallen into a deep slumber … But expectations are high that a way out of the pandemic is appearing on the horizon very soon.” — Saksith Saiyasombut in a video report for CNA

“There is still a risk when you welcome them without quarantining that they carry the virus into the country, especially when it is the variant of concern. There will be a chance that it will spread in the community.” — Public health expert Thira Woratanarat of Chulalongkorn University as quoted by Hannah Beech and Muktita Suhartono for The New York Times

“He admitted that it wasn’t the foreign visitors arriving in Phuket under the Phuket Sandbox program who are worrying the province in terms of outbreak containment. It’s those who will come to the province by land from within Thailand.” — Bangkok Post’s Mongkol Bangprapa and Achadthaya Chuenniran paraphrasing Phuket Governor Narong Wunsiew

“If you look at the nationwide infection number, we would say we are not ready. If you focus only on Phuket, where we have laid our groundwork for more than three months, I would say that Phuket is 100% ready.” — Tourism Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn as quoted by Kocha Olarn for CNN

“We know that there is a risk. But we have to accept the risk so Thai people can make a living.” — Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha as quoted by the BBC

“But what awaits visitors when they arrive… ? Certainly not crowded streets full of happy tourists and thriving businesses. Instead, they’ll be met with draconian rules, restrictions, and closed shops — indeed, a far cry from the Phuket of old.” — An op-ed piece by Bangkok Post

“This (Sandbox) test was never meant to bring in tens of thousands of tourists like before, it was designed for Thailand to very carefully dip their toes into the water of tourism, see how many cases of Covid-19 come from foreign visitors in a controlled environment, gather data and information, and expand the program later this year.” — Adam Judd in an op-ed piece for The Pattaya News

Jokes, cartoons and videos

The most fun part about watching the reopening from my armchair were all of the funny and intriguing social media posts, including from people who live on Phuket. Lana got things rolling with some anxious excitement:

Then Willy showed off some of the improvements made in Phuket since the international tourists have been away:

Beth got a hearty laugh out of me with this one:

And Phil, as usual, was spot on with this meme:

The Phuket reopening also inspired some terrific political cartoons. I appreciated Stephff’s depiction of a tourist being prodded, jabbed and tracked, as well as a planeload of tourists approaching “Phuketcatraz.” But his cartoon displaying a pair of elephants on a “collision course” was my favorite:

This one also summed up the gamble that Thai authorities are taking:

Cartoonist Khai Maew took a more serious approach that touched on the seaside gathering of government ministers without masks on July 1st:

Titled “Thailand now open,” a TAT promotional video released for the Sandbox reopening was so widely panned as tone deaf for showing travelers frolicking around as though the pandemic never happened that it was quickly taken down. They’d have been better off with something like Delivering Asia’s video, which simply features locals saying “welcome home” in Thai for 23 seconds:

Jokes aside…

Most of the news reports documented the first arrivals along with the Prime Minister’s words and perhaps a quote from another official or a rundown of the Sandbox rules. A few, however, got regular residents of Phuket involved:

“Small businesses like guesthouses will not be able to get the SHA Plus certificate, and since bars remain closed and restaurants are allowed to open until 11:00 PM, visitors will stay mostly in hotels and on the beach.” — An anonymous guesthouse owner as quoted by Jitsiree Thongnoi for South China Morning Post

“If anyone donates food, I am always in the line to get some because it is a key way to survive. I really hope that the sandbox will bring tourists to Phuket so that we can start to earn some income again, even if it is only one or two people per day.” — “Sao,” a cleaner / masseuse as quoted by The Phuket News

“‘I was so hopeless to the point that I wanted to commit suicide because I can't carry on anymore,’ she said, tears streaming down her face.” — Pimonta Suksaen, a restaurant owner and single mother as quoted by Jiraporn Kuhakan for Reuters

But there’s one more critical point that I’ve been trying to drive home for months — on Twitter and in interviews and right here in this newsletter — which I still haven’t seen any other media outlets cover specifically:

The thousands of businesses in Thailand that mainly relied on foreign tourism before the Covid-19 crisis, be they in Phuket or anywhere else, have received little to nothing from government policies throughout the pandemic. They were largely left out of the income that came from a domestic tourism stimulus program last year, and “soft loans” have been unattainable for many due to strict qualification rules.

This dose of reality makes one of the Prime Minister’s favorite refrains — “the government leaves no one behind” — sound disingenuous. The truth is that many thousands of small business owners and workers have been left behind over the past 16 months in Thailand. The Phuket Sandbox and similar programs are important, but they won’t be enough to bring those livelihoods back soon. 🌴

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