Thailand: ‘Ghost town’ Phuket steps up COVID vaccinations to reopen to tourists

COVID-19 hit Phuket’s Tiger Muaythai camp hard.

Since the pandemic, owner Viwat Sakulrat estimates his boxing school has lost around a million pounds.

When Thailand tightened its border restrictions and enforced a strict 14-day hotel quarantine, the foreign tourists dried up along with the money.

With 95% of Phuket’s income linked to tourism, the island is now pushing a plan to restart the industry safely.

For it to work, 70% of people living there must be vaccinated by 1 July.

If they hit that target then the current plan is that fully vaccinated foreign tourists from low to medium risk countries will be allowed to visit the island without any quarantine.

They can’t leave Phuket for the first two weeks but are allowed to travel around the island as long as they’re still COVID free.

The hope is they’ll pump money back into struggling local businesses.

Mr Sakulrat says his staff can’t wait: “All of them are very excited because at least they have some kind of protection from COVID…it’s like a new life for them.

“They have been staying home for the last two years but now I think they’ll be back to work again, back to the regular life again,” he says.

“It will make a big difference because on this island [and] all over this province we rely on the tourism and without the customers from overseas, it’s a ghost town.”

Phuket is Thailand’s biggest island and the most visited destination outside Bangkok.

But now, even the usually bustling streets of the tourist hub, Patong, are quiet.

COVID-19 meant just under seven million foreign tourists visited Thailand last year compared to almost 40 million in 2019, according to figures from the Ministry of Tourism and Sports.

Phuket’s plan still needs a final sign off but if the bubble is a success it could be a model for other resorts worldwide.

“COVID disconnecting tourists from us, that hit the daily life of the people. [There are] no jobs, no employment, no income, and no hope,” explains Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, president of Phuket Tourist Association.

“So the reopening gives us hope to get back to life once again and we don’t expect a huge demand at the beginning,”

On the nearby island of Koh Panyee, the reboot can’t come soon enough.

The majority of businesses are closed.

Day-trippers from Phuket helped keep the whole community afloat.

“Before the COVID situation, Koh Panyee had 5,000 to 6,000 visitors per day….now it’s zero. Because the tourists can’t come, people’s income has fallen. There is zero income, only expenses,” says Muhammad Prasanpann, the village’s headman.

The people on Koh Panyee are now getting their vaccinations in the hope they can follow Phuket’s lead and reopen to vaccinated foreign tourists in August.

As people wait for the holidaymakers to return, local businesses are donating food to struggling families.

“How will you know if Phuket’s plan has worked?” I ask Shaun Stenning, the owner of 5 Star Marine, one of the companies handing out food.

“When I can stop handing out these life bags,” he replies.

Phuket’s grand reopening cannot afford to fail.

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