In normal times, Phuket’s Angsana Laguna Resort Convention Center hosts extravagant weddings and luxury business summits. Since April, it has served as one of seven centers on the front line of the island’s Covid vaccination campaign. Behind the room’s white satin curtains, medical staff in hairnets and blue aprons administer 1,800 daily doses.
The island is rushing to vaccinate as many people as possible in the hope that if 70% of the population receives a dose by July 1, Phuket will become the first Thai destination to reopen to foreign tourists.
If the island can build its immunity, it could soon come back to life again, said infectious disease nurse Bang-orn Rungruang, who is helping coordinate vaccinations at the Angsana Convention and Exhibition Space. The pandemic, he said, had devastated the island’s businesses. “It was like a domino effect. With no tourists coming to Phuket, the economy just collapsed – no buyers, no sellers. “
The island, famous for its idyllic beaches, attracted 10 million visitors a year before the pandemic, and almost all residents have felt the economic impact of the virus. Drivers who used to travel through an endless stream of tourists can now barely afford to rent their vehicles. The street vendors have packed up. Even at Thalang Hospital, the number of patients has decreased as many residents have left the island to return to their home provinces.
In Patong, on the west coast of Phuket, known for its nightlife, the streets are almost deserted. On Friday nights, the generally noisy bars are silent, with stools stacked on empty tables. Metal shutters and tarpaulins close in front of restaurants, clubs, and tattoo parlors. The neon signs that normally illuminate the streets are off.
The country’s bars and nightlife spots were ordered to close in response to a third wave of Covid-19, which is the most severe yet and is concentrated in the capital Bangkok. Even if the nightlife in Patong were allowed to open, there would be practically no customers.
While Europe has largely remained open during the pandemic, Southeast Asia has kept its borders almost completely closed. In Thailand, anyone entering, such as returning Thai citizens or foreigners working in the country, must stay in a room at a designated hotel for 14 days and provide a negative Covid test result.
The strategy has helped Thailand avoid the huge death toll seen in other parts of the world: 1,577 people have died. – But it put immense pressure on its tourism-dependent economy. Last week, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said the country would be fully opened in mid-October, citing “the enormous suffering of people who have lost the ability to generate income.”
Phuket, which will ease restrictions from July 1, is expected to provide a model for the rest of the country and potentially other tourist destinations in Asia. “We will be the first country east of the Maldives to open,” said Ravi Chandran, managing director of Laguna Phuket, a resort in the northwest of the island, who described the program as a stepping stone to the resumption of tourism.
The new scheme, known as “Phuket Sandbox,” is expected to get final approval next week, and will see the island open its doors to fully vaccinated tourists from low- and medium-risk countries.
Guests must stay in special certified hotels where 70% of the staff have been vaccinated and, if they wish to go elsewhere in Thailand, they must wait 14 days before doing so.
They will also need to follow disease prevention measures, including the mandatory use of outdoor masks, and there is a national ban that prevents the sale of alcohol in restaurants. Reports suggest that visitors will need to download a tracking app or wear a GPS wristband, so authorities can detect if they leave the island prematurely, although exact details have yet to be confirmed.
The island did not expect a large influx of tourists during the first few months, said Krystal Prakaikaew Na-Ranong, co-owner and managing director of Slate Phuket, a luxury hotel on the west coast. “That will give us time to test these new measures and see how things are going, and prepare for the [end of the year], which will be our peak season, “he said. The Slate was forced to close for six months as a result of the pandemic.
Jiradet Benjakarn, owner of a stall in the Chillva night market that sells or manyi, a Japanese dessert, he hoped the arrival of new tourists would boost the business. The market was lively Friday night, but it wasn’t as busy as it would have been before the pandemic, he said. “I have two stores here and normally for one store I have four employees. Now it’s just one, ”he said, adding that many people had left the island due to job cuts.
Jiradet wasn’t sure when things would go back to normal. “Maybe next year,” he said. “If they don’t have a room [wave] of Covid-19 “.
More than 60% of Phuket’s population has received at least one vaccine injection, far more than in the rest of Thailand, where the immunization campaign has been slow and hampered by supply problems. Nationally, only 7.5% of the population has received at least one dose.
Bang-orn said that the staff mainly administered the Sinovac vaccine from China, while AstraZeneca was used for older people. “Most are grateful to have the vaccine,” he said. “If we can move on, we can get back on our feet and open Phuket once again.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism