‘Devastated’ Phuket in race to vaccinate 70% of islanders in time for holiday season

By Rebecca Ratcliffe

In normal times, the convention centre at Phuket’s Angsana Laguna resort hosts extravagant weddings and luxury business summits. Since April, it has served as one of seven centres on the frontline of the island’s Covid vaccination campaign. Behind the room’s white satin curtains, medical staff in hair nets and blue aprons administer 1,800 doses each day.

The island is racing to vaccinate as many people as possible in the hope that, if 70% of the population receives a dose before 1 July, 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 to coordinate vaccines at the Angsana Convention and Exhibition Space. The pandemic, she said, had devastated the island’s businesses. “It was like a domino effect. With no tourists coming into Phuket, the economy just collapsed: no buyers, no sellers.”

The island, famed for its idyllic beaches, drew 10 million visitors a year before the pandemic, and the economic impact of the virus has been felt by almost all residents. Drivers who once ferried around an endless stream of tourists can now barely afford to lease their vehicles. Street sellers have packed up. Even at Thalang hospital the number of patients has fallen because so many residents have left the island to return to home provinces.

In Patong on Phuket’s west coast, known for its nightlife, the streets are almost deserted. On Friday night, usually raucous bars stand silent, with stools stacked on top of empty tables. Metal shutters and tarpaulins are pulled down across the front of restaurants, clubs and tattoo parlours. The neon bar signs that normally illuminate the streets are switched off.

An empty beach on Phuket in April.
An empty beach on Phuket in April. Photograph: Jorge Silva/Reuters

The country’s bars and nightlife venues have been ordered to shut in response to a third wave of Covid-19, which is the most severe yet and concentrated in the capital Bangkok. Even if nightlife was allowed to open in Patong, there would be virtually no customers.

While Europe has largely remained open during the pandemic, south-east Asia has kept its borders almost completely shut. In Thailand, anyone who does enter – such as returning Thai citizens or foreigners who work 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 tolls seen elsewhere around the world – 1,577 people have died but placed immense pressure on its tourism-dependent economy. Last week, Thai prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said the country would open fully by mid-October, citing “the enormous suffering of people who have lost their ability to earn an income”.

It is hoped that Phuket, which is set to ease restrictions from 1 July, could provide a model for the rest of the country, and potentially other tourism destinations in Asia. “We will be the first country east of Maldives to open up,” said Ravi Chandran, managing director of Laguna Phuket, a resort in the island’s north-west, who described the programme as a stepping stone towards restarting 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 will need to stay at special, certified hotels where 70% of staff have been vaccinated, and if they want to go elsewhere in Thailand they will need to wait 14 days before doing so.

They will also need to follow disease prevention measures – including compulsory mask-wearing outdoors – and there is a national ban preventing the sale of alcohol in restaurants. Reports suggest visitors will be required to download a tracking app or wear a GPS wristband, so that authorities can spot if they leave the island prematurely, although the exact details are yet to be confirmed.

The island was not expecting a huge influx of tourists during the first few months, said Krystal Prakaikaew Na-Ranong, co-owner and managing director of the Slate Phuket, a luxury hotel on the west coast. “That will give us time to try these new measures and see how things go, and get ourselves ready for the [end of the year], which will be our high season,” she said. The Slate was forced to shut for six months as a result of the pandemic.

Jiradet Benjakarn, who owns a stall in Chillva night market selling dog-shaped obanyaki, a Japanese dessert, hoped the arrival of new tourists would boost business. The market was lively on Friday night, but nowhere near as busy as it would have been before the pandemic, he said. “I have two shops here and normally for one shop I have four staff. Now it’s just one,” he said, adding that a lot of people had left the island because of the job cuts.

Jiradet was unsure when things would be normal again. “Maybe next year,” he said. “If they don’t have a fourth [wave] of Covid-19.”

More than 60% of Phuket’s population has had at least one vaccine jab – far more than in the rest of Thailand, where the immunisation campaign has been sluggish and hampered by supply problems. Nationally, only 7.5% of the population has received at least one dose.

Bang-orn said that staff were mostly administering China’s Sinovac vaccine, with AstraZeneca used for older people. “Most are grateful to have the vaccine,” she said. “If we can move on, we can get back on our feet and open Phuket once again.”