Some 'sandbox' scheme visitors in Phuket face cancelled flights

Thailand has implemented stricter domestic travel and movement curbs in Bangkok and 12 other provinces. - AFP

BANGKOK (The Straits Times/ANN): A two-week holiday in Phuket has hit a snag for some travellers as new restrictions on domestic flights and land travel have ruffled nerves and sent a handful scrambling for alternative travel options.

For one Thai national who entered Phuket under the Sandbox reopening scheme and plans to visit her aged parents in Bangkok, this means resorting to a two-day road trip to the capital as her domestic flight next week was cancelled.

"I was worried that I would be stuck in Phuket, but I immediately tried to gather all my options," said the part-time translator in her 50s, who only wanted to be known by her nickname Da.

But while the new restrictions have caused inconvenience and anxiety for visitors, those whom The Straits Times spoke to said they knew they had to be mentally-prepared for changes, given the evolving Covid-19 situation in Thailand.

"We knew that coming into this we had to be flexible," said Da. "But it's still unnerving."

Following surging coronavirus cases in recent weeks, Thailand has implemented stricter domestic travel and movement curbs in Bangkok and 12 other provinces. This includes a night curfew, restrictions on inter-provincial travel by bus, boat and train, and a ban on most flights in and out of the affected areas.

On Friday (July 23), the nation reported 14,575 new infections, a daily record for a third consecutive day, and 114 deaths. This brings its total to 467,707 infections and 3,811 fatalities, with most cases in the Bangkok metropolitan area.

But while the rest of the country battles its most severe Covid-19 wave yet, Phuket has remained relatively unscathed, with only a small increase in its daily new infections.

The island reported 18 local cases on Friday, the highest so far since the Sandbox scheme started. It saw an average of nine infections daily in the last week.

Earlier this week, Phuket introduced stricter Covid-19 rules that shut all pubs, bars and entertainment venues, limited the operating hours of malls and some businesses, and banned large celebrations and parties.

The island, which has fully inoculated about 70 per cent of its population, first opened its doors to vaccinated travellers on July 1.

It is the first Thai destination to allow vaccinated travellers to roam quarantine-free. After 14 days on the island, they can travel to other parts of Thailand with no restrictions.

Three more islands - Samui, Tao and Phangan - followed suit on July 15.

British tourist Laura McBain and her family had come close to cancelling their Phuket holiday due to the evolving entry requirements in the lead up to their trip on July 6.

"But it was absolutely brilliant, now I wish we had stayed longer," McBain, 37, told The Straits Times on Thursday (July 22) from her home in Bahrain.

She had visited Phuket with her husband and two sons aged 11 and 16.

While she did keep an eye on the number of cases on the island and nationwide during their two-week stay, the school teacher felt safe as she and her family adhered to social distancing and mask wearing rules there.

Last week Thai authorities said the Phuket Sandbox was off to a "very good start".

Siripakorn Cheawsamoot, deputy governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, said during a webinar: "The good thing is that the destination is safe. The community vaccination has already reached the standards of herd immunity."

He added: "We need to prove to everyone, to the local people, to the international tourists to come and see with their own eyes that Phuket is safe for everyone."

The authorities estimate that the sandbox programme will generate over 500 million baht (S$20.6 million) for the island's ailing tourism industry in the next few months. Past reports said Phuket made 470 billion baht in 2019.

Of the more than 9,500 foreign arrivals in Phuket, 21 of them have tested positive for Covid-19 so far.

While the travellers that ST spoke to have found alternative means of transport out of Phuket, with most resorting to driving or hiring private cars, there are some uncertainties along the way.

As each province has its own rules, Scottish expatriate Graham Foxe, 57, who will be making a 15-hour drive from Phuket this weekend, could face different border control measures at the checkpoints.

While this will make his journey home to the central province of Chai Nat more troublesome, Foxe is not daunted.

"The only reason I came to Thailand was to see my wife," said the merchant seaman who has not seen her for two years.

While there is the option to stay put in Phuket until restrictions are reviewed and possibly lifted in early August, Foxe said he would rather get home quickly in case further restrictions are imposed.

"Who knows how the situation might be in two weeks," he added.

McBain said anyone who wants to visit Phuket must accept there are potential risks.

For instance, her family were told that a passenger on their Dubai-to-Phuket flight had tested positive for the virus.

"Thankfully we were not sitting near him, so we did not need to be quarantined," said McBain. "It was big risk, big reward." - The Straits Times/Asia News Network

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