Normally, the convention center at Phuket’s Angsana Laguna Resort hosts extravagant weddings and luxury business summits. Since April, it has been one of the seven centers on the front line of the island’s vaccination campaign against Covid. Behind the white satin curtains of the room, the medical staff in hairnet and blue apron administer 1,800 doses each day.
The island is rushing to vaccinate as many people as possible in the hopes that if 70% of the population is vaccinated before July 1, Phuket will become the first Thai destination to reopen to foreign tourists.
If the island can boost its immunity, it could soon come back to life, said Bang-orn Rungruang, an infectious disease nurse who helps coordinate vaccines at the Angsana convention and exhibition space. The pandemic, she said, had devastated businesses on the island. “It was like a domino effect. With no tourists in Phuket, the economy collapsed: no buyers, no sellers. “
The island, famous for its idyllic beaches, attracted 10 million visitors a year before the pandemic, and the economic impact of the virus has been felt by almost everyone. Drivers who once carried an endless stream of tourists can now barely afford to rent their vehicles. The street vendors have packed their bags. Even at Thalang Hospital, the number of patients has declined because so many residents have left the island to return to their home province.
In Patong on the west coast of Phuket, known for its nightlife, the streets are almost deserted. On Friday nights, the usually noisy bars remain silent, with stools stacked on empty tables. Metal shutters and tarps are lowered in front of restaurants, clubs and tattoo parlors. The neon signs that normally light up the streets are turned off.
Bars and nightlife spots across the country have been ordered to close in response to a third wave of Covid-19, which is the most severe to date and concentrated in the capital Bangkok. Even if nightlife were allowed to open in Patong, there would be hardly any customers.
While Europe has remained largely open during the pandemic, Southeast Asia has kept its borders almost completely closed. In Thailand, anyone who enters – such as returning Thai citizens or foreigners working in the country – must stay in a room at a designated hotel for 14 days and provide a negative Covid test result.
The strategy helped Thailand avoid the huge death toll seen elsewhere in the world – 1,577 people died – but has put immense pressure on its tourism dependent economy. Last week, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said the country would fully open by mid-October, citing “the tremendous suffering of people who have lost their ability to earn an income”.
It is hoped that Phuket, which is expected to ease restrictions from July 1, could serve as a model for the rest of the country, and potentially other tourist destinations in Asia. “We will be the first country east of the Maldives to open up,” said Ravi Chandran, managing director of Laguna Phuket, a resort in the northwest of the island, who described the program as a stepping stone to the restart of tourism.
The new program, known as the ‘Phuket Sandbox’, is expected to get final approval next week and will see the island open its doors to fully vaccinated tourists from low and medium risk countries.
Guests will need to stay in special, certified hotels where 70% of the staff have been vaccinated, and if they want to go elsewhere in Thailand, they will have to wait 14 days before doing so.
They will also need to follow disease prevention measures – including mandatory face masks outdoors – and there is a nationwide ban preventing the sale of alcohol in restaurants. Reports suggest visitors will need to download a tracking app or wear a GPS bracelet, so authorities can spot if they leave the island prematurely, though exact details are yet to be confirmed.
The island didn’t expect a massive influx of tourists in the first few months, said Krystal Prakaikaew Na-Ranong, co-owner and general manager of Slate Phuket, a luxury hotel on the west coast. “This will give us time to try out these new measures and see how things go, and prepare for the [end of the year], which will be our high season, ”she said. The slate was forced to close for six months due to the pandemic.
Jiradet Benjakarn, who owns a stall in Chillva’s night market selling dog-shaped o a lot, a Japanese dessert, hoped that the arrival of new tourists would boost business. The market was busy Friday night, but nowhere near as busy as it would have been before the pandemic, he said. “I have two stores here and normally for one store I have four employees. Now it’s just one, ”he said, adding that many people had left the island because of the job cuts.
Jiradet didn’t know when things would get back to normal. “Maybe next year,” he said. “If they don’t have a fourth [wave] du Covid-19. »
More than 60% of the population of Phuket has received at least one vaccine – far more than in the rest of Thailand, where the vaccination campaign has been slow and hampered by supply problems. Nationally, only 7.5% of the population received at least one dose. It is not clear whether the reopening plan will require 70% of Phuket to receive a jab or both doses.
Bang-orn said staff primarily administer the Chinese Sinovac vaccine, with AstraZeneca being used for the elderly. “Most are grateful to have the vaccine,” she said. “If we can move forward, we can get back on our feet and reopen Phuket. “