Couchfish: The Phuket Sandpit...

Couchfish: The Phuket Sandpit... doomed

Let me preface this by saying, while I’ve always thought the Phuket Sandbox was a flawed and premature concept, I did want to see it succeed. Through fault not entirely of its own though, Phuket’s sandpit is doomed.

I’d love to see recreational travel restart—with the provision it protects the well being of locals. Not just locals—tourists as well—both foreign and domestic.

Not Covid, just a deadly phone–box. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Baby steps matter of course. It pays to test the water before leaping in. The last eighteen months are littered with the burst remnants of “travel bubbles”. It also pays to read the small print, and in Phuket’s case, reading the small print is instructive.

A Sandbox foundation was that 70% of Phuket’s local population would be fully vaccinated. Not half–vaccinated—fully–vaccinated. In the final weeks before the launch, it was clear that the 70% target was not going to be met.

Seventy percent: A moving target. Photo: Lana Willocks.

Suddenly, the target shifted, the waters were muddied, and half–vaccinated became ok—at least at a governmental level. Writes The Phuket News:

“In local and even national officials announcing the Phuket Sandbox model last month, having 70% of the island’s population vaccinated for COVID-19 was described as a critical factor without which the reopening to foreign tourists could not go ahead. Over the past week, that factor is no longer being recognised by any officials.”

The thing is, it isn’t ok—it is throwing public health under the wheels of a tourist minibus. While the Phuket News has been doing a solid job, media coverage of this has not been great from all quarters. I won’t get into that now as I’ve a whole other Couchfish on this topic more regionally, coming in a week or so.

Keep on spinning. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

On that 70% though, you know what? Almost two weeks in and they’re still not there—they are getting close though.

The well–being of Phuketians be damned, come July 1 the Sandbox opened amid much fanfare. The inbound numbers were (as expected) paltry, but are expected to grow over time. Coupist Prayut even showed up for a meet and greet—then promptly had to go into self–isolation after a close contact with someone who was Covid positive. Oh the irony.

While some of the arrivals appear to be tourists, journalists have suggested others may not be, perhaps instead using Phuket as a back way into greater Thailand. Face it, 14 days of quarantine in Phuket is more appealing than a hotel on Bangkok’s Sukhumvit. This isn’t against the rules as far as I know—though to be honest the rules change almost daily, so who knows.

Just one thing missing. Laem Singh Beach, Phuket. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Some do appear to be real tourists. One of which was a guest inbound from UAE. Despite being fully vaccinated, they tested positive after arrival. The result for them was quarantine—at their expense, 52,000 baht according to one report. In its defence, Thailand was pretty clear on this.

What wasn’t so clear, was that 13 other passengers* on the flight were also quarantined—initially also at their own expense, though it appears refunds will be forthcoming. According to the The Phuket News, they’d dearly like to cut their trip short and go home now please—later reports confirmed they were allowed to leave. The trip of a lifetime indeed.

Read the small print people.

Sunset, Kata Noi, Phuket. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Yesterday, there was a story about two unvaccinated Burmese kids who hit positive on their second test. I didn’t realise Burmese were permitted to participate in the Sandbox, so their nationality was a surprise. It is unclear at this stage if they picked up the virus before or during the flight, or afterwards in Phuket. Regardless, they’re quarantined. Their parents are quarantined too. Separately, as the kids are apparently being treated in hospital.

Now that’s a family holiday to remember. Also though, why are unvaccinated kids being allowed to fly into Phuket in the first place? Hello?

There were others who had (and continue to have) a good time on the island. There were complaints about hotels not being up with the rules, but in the scheme of things, largely minor stuff. I read one account from a family who were having a ball at a high–end resort. That’s nice. Social media was awash in PR fluff.

Nai Thon—now we’re talking. Photo: Lana Willocks.

There was always going to be positive cases slipping through. Here in Bali I know a couple of fully vaccinated adults who have been re–infected, and you might know some too. This was always a risk, but Phuket does seem to have a handle on these cases when they appear.

The thing is, while Phuket may have a handle on positive cases from a medical point of view, the rest of Thailand doesn’t. The country is in the throes of a health crisis.

Thailand’s current day to day positive caseload and number of deaths exceeds the country’s figures for all of 2020. That’s the scary thing about Covid, especially the delta strain. Districts are closing borders and Thais are queuing overnight for PCR tests. Some of the sick are being treated in hospital carparks.

Phuket Town’s old world charm. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Coupist Prayut has declared a non–curfew curfew and the worst hit areas are in varying states of lockdown. In the south of the country bordering Malaysia, the situation is not far short of an emergency. The Transport Company has cancelled bus services to all of southern Thailand. Thai Air Asia and other carriers are cancelling domestic flights. The local government in Phuket has ordered all schools closed for two weeks. Overall, the picture does not look promising.

Another Sandpit provision was that after 14 days in Phuket and after passing multiple PCR tests, visitors could travel freely within Thailand. Given Thailand’s abject mismanagement of its vaccination “plan”, the vast majority of Thais remain unvaccinated. Is letting foreign travellers, even if they are vaccinated, travel all over a near totally unvaccinated country really a sound idea? As already mentioned, a vaccination doesn’t make one Covid–proof, and some vaccines are proving to be not as effective as they could be versus the delta strain.

Meanwhile over at the TAT Braintrust, it is full steam ahead for Samui Plus. Seriously. The mind boggles.

Samui Plus. A rocky future? Lamai Beach, Ko Samui. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

The Thai government’s approach to Phuket reminds me of Indonesia’s approach to Bali. Indonesia, in case you missed it, sits at the precipice of a complete collapse of its medical system. Daily case numbers and deaths are at record levels. The primary niche for drone photography at the moment isn’t surf breaks—rather it is aerial cemetery photography.

As with Thailand and Phuket, Indonesia prioritised vaccines for Bali. Like Phuket, there were plans to reopen this month. They’re now shelved and the island is in strict (by Indonesian standards) lockdown. As far as I can tell, the approach is to vaccinate their way out of the problem. Like Phuket, Bali’s economy is over–exposed to tourism and local livelihoods have been hammered.

On one hand this piecemeal approach makes sense—tourism is a job creator and revenue raiser. On the other hand though, prioritising tourist areas ahead of everybody else stinks. Especially when the vast majority of each population remains unvaccinated. It is their country—not tourists’.

Ya Nui. Phuket is picture perfect in places. Photo: Lana Willocks.

Thailand couldn’t even manage to vaccinate 70% of Phuketians before opening. What happened to public health first? Where was the support to small businesses till say October 1 to allow for vaccinations at least in Phuket to finish? Actually where has the government financial support been throughout this entire crisis? Nowhere.

I said up top, Phuket’s sandbox is doomed. It is doomed because it was poorly thought out and driven by misguided motivations. It is to a destination within a country seeing record Covid growth. The government, through its policies, has clearly indicated public health is not a priority. Be it a sudden growth of cases in Phuket, or nationwide, I’d be amazed if the Sandbox is still running by the end of July. Ko Samui? A non–starter.

Push these piecemeal re–openings back, financially support small businesses and prioritise vaccinating local people. It is that simple.

Oh, and stop listening to whining billionaire hoteliers.

* This piece was updated on July 13, 2021 to clarify that when the 13 passengers were quarantined off the flight from UAE, they did not represent the full passenger load of the aircraft. Apols for any confusion.

The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.