Eerily empty, Thai tourist island Phuket desperate to reopen

FILE PHOTO: An empty street market is seen near the beach in Phuket, Thailand March 31, 2021. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

PHUKET, Thailand (Reuters) - A year after one of Southeast Asia's most popular fun-and-sun destinations became an eerily quiet shell of empty resorts, shops and nightclubs, residents of the Thai island of Phuket are hoping to save their economy with an inoculation programme.

For now, beach umbrellas rest rolled up on vacant hotel verandas, overlooking empty stretches of sand, while mannequins languish in dust-covered windows of shuttered shops.

"We are taking the opportunity to put our system to a test", said vice governor of Phuket province, Piyapong Choowong, adding that more than 70% of Phuket's population of about 650,000 would be vaccinated by July 1, when foreign vaccinated visitors are allowed in without the long quarantines that have kept most tourists away.

Phuket has its own international airport, so tourists can roam the island freely without posing any coronavirus risk to the rest of Thailand's population.

Residents and vendors say they badly need the business.

"The situation is very bad. All stores are closed. People are suffering," said Uga, who sells coconuts and drinks by an empty beach.

Thailand lost about $50 billion in tourism revenue last year - an 82% plunge. Phuket, where about a quarter of foreign tourists spend time, was hit particularly hard.

The prospect of reopening, even as a third coronavirus wave kicks up hundreds of new cases in Thailand per day, has many hoping the worst is now over, though rebuilding may be slow.

The government hopes at least 100,000 tourists will visit Phuket in the third quarter.

Just 6.7 million foreign tourists visited Thailand in 2020, spending some $11 billion. That compares with nearly 40 million in 2019, when they spent $61 billion.

(Additional Reporting by Juarawee Kittisilpa; Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Karishma Singh)

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