Coronavirus: Global situation

Phuket Sandbox 'can help restart tourism in Asia'

An empty hotel and beach on the Thai resort island of Phuket in March. Thailand aims to allow quarantine-free travel to its prime destination from July 1, provided visitors are vaccinated and not from high-risk countries.
An empty hotel and beach on the Thai resort island of Phuket in March. Thailand aims to allow quarantine-free travel to its prime destination from July 1, provided visitors are vaccinated and not from high-risk countries.PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK • Thailand's plan to reopen Phuket could become a model for other vacation hot spots in Asia to reopen their borders to tourists, according to the founder of Banyan Tree Holdings, as travel bubble strategies falter.

Despite local medical experts urging caution amid a potential spread of new Covid-19 variants on the island, Thailand aims to allow quarantine-free travel to its prime destination from July 1, provided visitors are vaccinated and not coming from high-risk countries.

The so-called Phuket Sandbox plan is dependent on the vaccination rate among the island's residents hitting at least 70 per cent.

Thailand's Public Health Ministry said about 400,000 Phuket locals or 60 per cent of the population have been inoculated, higher than the 5 per cent nationwide.

"Every government is beginning to feel around on how to open up, and the Phuket Sandbox is really a viable way now because even the travel bubbles that people talked about didn't take place," Banyan Tree executive chairman Ho Kwon Ping said on Monday.

"It's the first time anywhere east of the Maldives you have a country with this population with such a low vaccination rate actually opening up to the rest of the world.

"The Sandbox is much more than just for Phuket or Thailand. It sets a possible way forward for other Asian countries," said Mr Ho, who founded the leisure and property empire of 48 hotels and resorts in more than a dozen countries.

Yesterday, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said Thailand plans to reopen to foreign visitors in 120 days, acknowledging that setting a deadline for mid-October will be fraught with "some risks".

He said: "When we open the country, there will be an increase in infections, no matter how good our precautions. But I think when we take into consideration the economic needs of people, the time has now come for us to take that calculated risk."

Dr Prasit Watanapa, dean of Mahidol University's medicine faculty, said on Tuesday that Phuket's reopening could make it vulnerable to the spread of Covid-19 variants. "I think it is too soon to open the country to foreign tourists as the vaccines (for) locals cannot protect against every kind of virus variant," he warned. "The province's disease control measures are not strict or comprehensive enough if a new wave emerges.

"Take the UK, for example. They opened the country and now their infection rate has climbed with new variants being discovered in the country... we do not know what the new variants are capable of."

Some countries in Asia have been slow to reopen, allowing only residents to enter in a bid to keep Covid-19 cases close to zero. Hong Kong and Singapore have been trying to open a quarantine-free travel corridor for months, but outbreaks have scuppered plans.

Still, Mr Ho said, islands are the best place to start as they are more isolated, and cases can be curbed.

BLOOMBERG, THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 17, 2021, with the headline 'Phuket Sandbox 'can help restart tourism in Asia''. Subscribe