Nearly three months ago, Thailand launched the “Phuket Sandbox project” to reopen selected destinations to vaccinated foreign tourists without quarantine. The reopening process began in Phuket on July 1, followed by three holiday islands of Surat Thani on July 15.
Why Thailand’s tourism sandbox programs failed
Under the “Phuket Sandbox project” program, foreigners who have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 and tested negative can fly into the province and roam freely without being quarantined. After staying in Phuket for 14 days and testing negative again, they can travel to other provinces.
Surat Thani’s “Samui Plus model” allows vaccinated foreign tourists to travel on sealed routes to Koh Samui, Koh Pha-ngan and Koh Tao if they spend the first seven days in an Alternative Local State Quarantine (ALQ) hotel and undergo tests where necessary.
The Samui Plus model is linked to the island hopping program called “7+7 Phuket Extension”, which takes visitors who spend 7 days in Phuket and still test negative to the tourist islands in Surat Thani, Krabi and Phang provinces for seven days. This campaign was launched on August 16.
However, these tourist sandbox solutions have received a lukewarm response from foreigners. From July 1 to September 26, the Phuket Sandbox registered more than 37,000 foreign visitors, less than half of the Ministry of Tourism and Sports target of 100,000 visitors in the first three months.
Meanwhile, Samui Plus registered just 900 visitors in more than two months to September 26, significantly less than the 1,000 monthly visitors targeted by the province’s tourism association.
Krungthep Turakij gathered opinions from the tourism-related public and private sector on why the sandbox programs failed and how they could be improved to successfully rebuild the tourism industry ravaged by Covid:
The escalating Covid-19 outbreak in Thailand
The emergence of the fourth wave of Covid-19 in April, which pushed the daily number of cases to more than 20,000, prompted many countries to raise their warning level for travel to Thailand.
The United States Center for Disease Control warned its citizens on August 9 that Thailand poses the highest risk (level 4) for Covid-19.
On August 26, the United Kingdom placed Thailand on the Red List, forcing returnees from Thailand to the UK to spend 10 days in a quarantine facility at their own expense of around £2,230 or Baht 100,000.
These factors are likely a major contributor to the failure of sandbox programs, as tourists tend to avoid countries with a high risk of infection.
Delayed vaccine distribution
For a province to participate in the sandbox program, at least 70 percent of the population must be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 to achieve herd immunity. The government’s slowness in distributing vaccines to tourist provinces delayed their plans to reopen, which also made existing programs less attractive as fewer tourist destinations were available. So far, five provinces – Bangkok, Chonburi, Chiang Mai, Prachuap Khiri Khan and Phetchaburi – have been forced to postpone reopening from October 1 to November 1 because their vaccination rates are still too low.
Different SOPs Cause Confusion
Each province under the sandbox program has its own Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) that foreign tourists must follow before entering the destination and during their stay at the destination. Details of these SOPs vary from province to province, which can confuse tourists about which rules to follow and where. Many parties propose that all areas under sandbox programs should use the same SOP for uniformity and simplicity, which would help attract more foreign tourists.
Mandatory RT-PCR testing is too expensive
Many foreign visitors have complained that the required RT-PCR Covid-19 tests on arrival, during their stay and to enter other provinces cost too much. Foreigners pay 8,000 baht for three RT-PCR tests – more than twice as much as Thai nationals, who pay 800-1,200 baht per test.
14 days in quarantine is too long
Tourism operators have proposed reducing the mandatory quarantine from 14 days for foreign visitors to 10 or 7 days to attract tourists who want to travel outside the pilot provinces and thereby out the target groups of sandbox programs to expand. On September 23, the National Communicable Disease Committee responded by asking the Center for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) to reduce the quarantine requirement to 7-10 days under these circumstances:
– Mandatory quarantine reduced to 7 days for those who are fully vaccinated and test negative via the RT-PCR method on arrival and when they leave the ALQ hotel.
– Mandatory quarantine reduced to 10 days for those who have been vaccinated with one dose on arrival and when leaving the ALQ hotel and tested negative by the RT-PCR method.
– Mandatory quarantine remains at 14 days for foreign tourists who do not have a vaccination certificate. They must also test negative via the RT-PCR method upon arrival and when they leave the ALQ hotel.
The CCSA will have to approve this proposal one of these days.
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