Yesterday, July 1st, 2021, the Phuket Sandbox finally launched to great fanfare by the Thai government and Tourism Authority of Thailand, but to mostly negative or tepid feedback on social media in both Thai and English.
Even our own comments on articles about the Sandbox were almost universally negative, with most deriding what they see as strict requirements and paperwork, too many Covid-19 tests, lack of entertainment venues being open, a difficult and confusing process to apply for a certificate of entry (COE, having to stay at an SHA hotel, and other complaints about rules and regulations.
Before I go any further, let me link a few of our past articles about the Sandbox for those who aren’t aware of the program or what it entails as I won’t be going over that in-depth for this article. Here are a few of our recent articles to get caught up on the Sandbox.
Ok, with that out of the way, let’s get back to my point, what most people seem to be “missing” about the Sandbox when considering the project. By the way, the blame for people missing this is mostly on the media campaign behind the Sandbox which at times seemed to be screaming “Thailand is wide open” again and treating this test (and it is a test) as the “gates are open and tourism is back.”
Had the Phuket Sandbox been called island quarantine from the start and made it clear that this was a first cautious step to relaunching tourism in the country long term it is likely the amount of negativity would have been substantially less, especially from those people who are not the target market for the test. Instead, a lot of the media blitz seemed to, as stated above, focus on the return of tourism, when in fact let’s be honest the majority of people visiting are not tourists.
The vast majority of those visiting the Phuket Sandbox will be those returning to the country from overseas visits, ex-pats, Thai nationals returning, snowbirds (those who come for three to six months, mostly to escape the winter in their own countries), etc. The number of one to two-week tourists visiting due to the number of steps and paperwork and Covid-19 tests required to go will likely be very low and that is without even considering the fact that entertainment and bars, a highlight for many tourists especially in Patong, are still closed by government order. (Despite having about 70% of the population vaccinated in Phuket, strict entry requirements, and all tourists vaccinated.) However, the closure of entertainment is most certainly a deliberate decision as well and part of the test to ensure measures can be more controlled.
So, we have established that the Phuket Sandbox is a test, even if the advertising campaign doesn’t want to admit it, the majority of the people returning are not “tourists” and that the program is an island quarantine. However, this is NOT a bad thing. The Phuket Sandbox is a HUGE step forward for Thailand in a positive way even if it is NOT the great return to tourism for the country that many want or anything close to pre-covid19 travel when you could jump on a plane and simply fly in with your passport.
The point that most people seem to be missing, besides the above, is that this is the first time in a year and a half Thailand has allowed what they call “no quarantine.” Yes, in reality, it is an island quarantine but it is still a huge deal. This is a GIGANTIC step for a country that has erred heavily on the side of caution for the entire pandemic in regards to overseas travel and has been criticized by many for this. The other option was a fourteen-day quarantine (really 15/16 days depending on when you arrive) locked in a single hotel room. If the Sandbox succeeds, it is the first major step in getting rid of the draconian and much-maligned fourteen-day quarantine process. (At least for vaccinated people.)
Sure, Thailand tried some things like “Golf Quarantine” and “Yacht Quarantine” but those were also for very limited audiences and mostly also tests gathering data for the bigger sandbox project. Thailand also had allowed some freedom of movement at hotels after a certain number of Covid-19 tests, like sitting by the pool, but this was removed after the recent Covid-19 domestic outbreak in April that reached a record high today.
Some are questioning opening Phuket as domestic cases rise and as the country attempts to speed up its own vaccination drive but the truth is this test was probably long overdue and Thailand is in a very difficult position economically if they miss opening on a wider scale in Quarter 4 and a second high season in a row. Phuket, Samui, Pattaya, Chiang Mai, and many other islands have been particularly hard hit by lack of tourism and their infrastructure, evident by the condition of Patong seen in photos and the number of closed businesses, which has already taken a major blow. Other countries, like Mexico, parts of South America, UAE, and others have long since opened up tourism even while the pandemic continues, recognizing the importance to the economy and that Covid-19 isn’t going away anytime soon and waiting it out, like was the original plan last year, won’t be taking place anymore for Thailand.
I certainly understand the frustration and anger from many seeing the slickly produced videos and flyers and photo opportunities etc for Phuket Sandbox and the continued media blast that it is the return of tourism. It is not the great gates opening, as I said before, but it IS a very important first step, a huge one for Thailand. It’s critical this test goes well and as the test expands to Samui and parts of Surat Thani in the next few weeks (although with some changes, including more time at the hotel) that those tests go well also.
This 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. For those who are upset and negative about the program now, remember last year we had the special tourist visa with a similar number of strict requirements that were all eventually eased and relaxed.
To those upset about how many rules and regulations and steps the Sandbox contains, I have a simple message for you-the rules will be eased, but it will take some time. (and further vaccination on Thailand’s side.) A true “tourist-friendly” experience and rules will likely be down the road, although any guessing as to when is futile. The Phuket Sandbox, however, and those somewhat brave souls volunteering to be part of the test, is a VERY important BIG step for Thailand’s eventual return to tourism overall. This cannot be understated. It is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea but is a big step.
Thank you for reading and your time, I look forward to your thoughts and comments below or on our social media channels, have a brilliant weekend!
Co-Owner, The Pattaya News