Phuket should be proud of its role in reopening the country to tourism, and as the prime minister openly recognised, it is a risk. The chances that Phuket will be exposed to some carrier bringing a version of the virus to the island are high, it is what we do about it that counts.
As indicated by Phuket Governor Narong Woonciew yesterday suspending the option of domestic visitors being able to quarantine on the island, instead of proving they are vaccinated or tested negative for COVID in the 72 hours before coming here, officials are now recognising that the risk includes people inside the country as well as those arriving from abroad.
PM Prayut also recognised the need to revive the economy, and that Phuket was “90% dependent” on tourism, describing the move to reopen the country to tourism an “urgent necessity”. The alarm bell truly sounded a few weeks ago when the Cabinet approved further borrowing B500 billion to fund the COVID relief measures – that’s on top of the B1 trillion borrowed last year. Then this past week the government launched B50bn in special government funds to fund the “war effort”. That is as poor an indicator as anyone could expect.
Average per capita income in Phuket was finally recognised as falling below the poverty line in February this year despite widespread food relief efforts already underway across the island more than six months earlier. As is normal with bad news, local officials have not been forward in reporting just how bad the state of financial hardship is on the island, but at the same time are very happy to promote the volume of “life bags” of essential items being handed out to families in need. There’s nothing quite like trying to look good while not admitting anything is wrong.
In February, officials deferred delivering the bad news to Dr Chayanon Pucharoen, Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies at the Prince of Songkla University (PSU) Phuket Faculty of Hospitality and Tourism, who deserves respect for stepping forward.
However, just over a week after the news was announced Dr Chayanon confirmed directly with The Phuket News that his comments were misrepresented. The “pain point” was already being felt by people across Phuket, he said. No reports since then have confirmed whether the average per capita income in Phuket has improved at all.
Reopening Phuket, and the country, to tourists is a “great challenge”, as PM Prayut noted on Thursday. This of course does not provide any excuse for the incredibly late vaccination drive or the calamity of bureaucratic bungling so far in rolling out the rules and requirements for tourist coming to Phuket.
But Prayut was right in that the time has come, whether we like it or not. Phuket Sandbox is a test model, it was never intended to be a mass reopening, nor could it have ever been expected to have been. As we are all now hearing repeatedly, if the Sandbox model proves to be a success, then it can be expanded, and the Oct 1 reopening of other destinations in the country now appears to have always been Bangkok’s real goal.
This might explain why Phuket’s pleas last year to reopen to tourism independent from the rest of the country fell on deaf ears. Ironically, Prayut this week gave Phuket’s ability to be isolated from the mainland in case of outbreak as a key reason for choosing Phuket for the Sandbox launch. That was exactly the same reason given by leading Phuket figures for being able to reopen Phuket to tourists last year.
Regardless, it would be more comfortable for Phuket people if there were a wider base of people vaccinated on the island before reopening to tourists, something other destinations in the country will not have to cope with as they will have three more months to vaccinate their people. People in Phuket will just have to be braver than their compatriots. It’s a pity Prayut himself wasn’t brave enough to point that out.