Thailand: Phuket ‘ghost town’ steps up COVID vaccinations to reopen to tourists

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Thailand: Phuket ‘ghost town’ steps up COVID vaccinations to reopen to tourists


COVID-19 has hit Phuket’s Tiger Muaythai camp hard.

Since the pandemic, owner Viwat Sakulrat estimates his boxing school has lost around one million pounds.

When Thailand tightened its border restrictions and imposed a strict 14-day quarantine on hotels, foreign tourists dried up on the money.

With 95% of Phuket’s income linked to tourism, the island is now pushing a plan to restart the industry safely.

For this to work, 70% of the people who live there must be vaccinated before July 1.

If they do achieve this, the current plan is for fully vaccinated foreign tourists from low to medium risk countries to be allowed to visit the island without any quarantine.

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Phuket’s economy has been shaken by COVID-19

They cannot leave Phuket for the first two weeks but are allowed to travel around the island as long as they are still COVID-free.

The hope is that they will pump money back into struggling local businesses.

Mr Sakulrat says his staff are impatient: “Everyone is very excited because at least they have some kind of protection against COVID… it’s like new life for them.

“They’ve been at home for the past two years, but now I think they’re going to work again, get back to normal life,” he says.

“It will make a big difference because on this island [and] all over this province we rely on tourism and without overseas customers it is a ghost town. “

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Viwat Sakulrat said his staff are looking forward to welcoming tourists again

Phuket is Thailand’s largest island and the most visited destination outside of Bangkok.

But now even the generally busy streets of the tourist hub, Patong, are quiet.

COVID-19 meant that just under seven million foreign tourists visited Thailand last year, up from nearly 40 million in 2019, according to figures from the Ministry of Tourism and Sports.

Phuket’s plan still needs final approval, but if the bubble is successful it could be a model for other resorts around the world.

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Koh Panyee normally has visitors to its island, on day trips from Phuket

“COVID disconnects tourists from us, it hits people’s daily lives. [There are] no job, no job, no income and no hope, ”explains Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, president of the Phuket Tourist Association.

“So the reopening gives us hope to come back to life and we don’t expect huge demand at the start,” he added.

On the neighboring island of Koh Panyee, the restart cannot come soon enough.

Thailand's neighboring islands like Ko Khao Phing Kan hope the Phuket model can be replicated across the country
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Thailand’s neighboring islands like Ko Khao Phing Kan hope the Phuket model can be replicated across the country

The majority of businesses are closed.

Phuket day trippers helped keep the whole community afloat.

“Before the COVID situation, Koh Panyee had 5,000 to 6,000 visitors per day… now it’s zero. Because tourists cannot come, people’s income has gone down. There is no income, only expenses ”, explains Muhammad Prasanpann, the village chief.

Local businesses have supported islanders with food distributions, but hope that once restrictions are lifted these will end
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Local businesses supported islanders with food distributions

Residents of Koh Panyee are now getting vaccinated in hopes they can follow Phuket’s lead and reopen to foreign tourists vaccinated in August.

As people wait for vacationers to return, local businesses donate food to struggling families.

“How will you know if the Phuket plan has worked?” I ask Shaun Stenning, the owner of 5 Star Marine, one of the food companies.

“When I can stop handing out these rescue bags,” he replies.

Phuket’s grand reopening cannot afford to fail.

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