Thai residents turn to Phuket sandbox scheme for a quarantine-free route home

Ms Tarruthai Thamvongsin and her husband Chulayuth Asawaroengchai are returning home to Bangkok through the Phuket Sandbox scheme. PHOTO: COURTESY OF TARRUTHAI THAMVONGSIN

BANGKOK - Phuket is open to international tourists in what has been dubbed a "sandbox scheme" by the Thai government, but some Thai residents too are embracing the initiative albeit for more practical reasons.

Thai nationals and expats are using the scheme, which was launched on July 1, to return home while avoiding the kingdom's mandatory two-week quarantine rule that most inbound travellers have to undergo.

Under the scheme, vaccinated travellers can roam around Phuket without being confined to their hotel rooms, and after 14 days will be free to travel to the rest of Thailand with no restrictions.

The scheme - which was contingent on at least 70 per cent of Phuket's population being vaccinated - paves the way for the possible reopening of other Thai tourist regions, such as Ko Samui, Krabi and Chiang Mai, later this year.

In the past week, about 2,400 travellers from Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the United States have arrived in Phuket.

The Thai authorities expect this figure to hit 100,000 by September, generating 8.9 billion baht (S$370 million) in revenue.

Thai national Tarruthai Thamvongsin, 38, arrived in Phuket from San Francisco on July 1. She intends to head home to Bangkok after two weeks on the island.

The food and beverage business owner travelled to the United States in April with her husband, also a Thai national, to get vaccinated as they were unsure of when they would be able to do so at home.

"We were about to return (to Bangkok) but we heard about the Phuket Sandbox opening up, and decided to stay a bit longer so we could use it," said Ms Tarruthai. She and her husband, who is a software engineer, are able to work remotely.

But choosing to enter Thailand through Phuket instead of Bangkok, where she would have had to spend two weeks in quarantine in a hotel, was not without its challenges.

Gaining entry to the island was a stressful experience, she said, noting the various entry requirements announced or changed just days before the sandbox scheme was launched.

Getting the documents necessary for entry was also an anxious experience, as she received approval just six hours before her flight.

"But it's definitely better than state quarantine. The money I use on a quarantine hotel in Bangkok I would rather use here," said Ms Tarruthai, who spent the past week traipsing around the streets of Phuket's Old Town and lounging by the hotel pool.

Another Thai national, Ms Sawalee Thammavechmongkol-Taylor, 52, who has been away for more than a year, latched onto the sandbox scheme to visit family and friends in her home town in Chon Buri.

Ms Sawalee Thammavechmongkol-Taylor and her husband Fred will be arriving in Phuket next week. PHOTO: COURTESY OF SAWALEE THAMMAVECHMONGKOL-TAYLOR

Ms Sawalee, who runs a Thai restaurant in Michigan with her American husband, was wary about spending two weeks in hotel quarantine after friends shared their experiences about it.

"They joke that they feel like an animal in a zoo. Someone rings the doorbell and it's feeding time," she said, adding that the sandbox would allow her to have a holiday with little or no restrictions. She intends to fly from Chicago to Phuket on July 10.

"I need my Thai massage. I miss my family and Thai food," she said, acknowledging jokingly that the food she served in her restaurant was "not authentic".

On Thursday (July 8), Thailand reported 75 Covid-19 deaths, the highest figure since the pandemic started. There were 7,058 new cases.

In total, the kingdom has reported 2,462 deaths and 308,230 cases.

Thailand plans to fully reopen its borders by mid-October, but with cases mounting each day - mostly in Bangkok, the capital - the deadline set by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha hangs in the balance.

Thailand's coronavirus task force, the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration, has warned that the highly transmissible Delta variant could cause infections to soar to 10,000 daily next week.

Phuket's daily case numbers have been in the single-digits, but the island earlier this week reported the first infection among travellers.

Still, the sandbox scheme is a cause for optimism for expat Christina Grawe, 50, who is eager to return to Bangkok from Germany with her 10-year-old son as his school year begins next month.

Avoiding quarantine is a plus for her son, who is studying at an international school in Bangkok.

"He will go crazy if he cannot go out," she said.

The journalist and cafe owner flew to Germany in June to visit her family and get vaccinated. She is aware of rising infection numbers in Thailand as well as news about the Covid-19 positive traveller in Phuket.

"I know there are risks. As a tourist I would not go to Phuket, but having lived in Thailand for 16 years, I want to go home to Bangkok," said Ms Grawe who has booked her flight for July 23.

She knows other expat families who are also using the scheme to return to Thailand.

"Everyone who can, tries to enter via the sandbox. It's the better alternative," she said.

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