The Sandbox scheme, now expanded to tourist magnets in the South, is no match for the suspended Test & Go programme although it is keeping the country’s tourism heart beating, say tourism experts.
The emergence of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 put an instant damper on tourism, one of the kingdom’s biggest foreign exchange earners, barely two months after the country had reopened to overseas visitors in November last year.
To fully capitalise on reopening, the government implemented the Test & Go programme to pull in more tourists through a shorter health observation period.
People fresh off the plane needed to spend only one night at a hotel. If a test turns negative for Covid-19, they are free to venture out and enjoy their holidays.
For arrivals who met its requirement, Test & Go was far less tedious and costly than the Sandbox scheme in place since the middle of last year, when it was first launched in Phuket.
After that, overseas tourists could fly from Phuket to Koh Samui and travel onward to its popular satellite islands of Koh Tao and Koh Phangan under the “Samui-Plus Model”.
The Sandbox’s basic rule requires visitors to stay at least seven nights at specific accommodation which must be pre-paid.
During their mandatory hotel stay, they undergo two RT-PCR tests, the first of which is on the day they enter the kingdom.
Only after both tests clear them of Covid-19 will they be able to take a trip beyond their hotel starting on the eighth day.
Naturally, the Test & Go requirement, which was more relaxed than the Sandbox scheme, put a smile back on tourism workers and businesses reeling from almost two years of pandemic after it was introduced late last year.
However, their euphoria was short-lived with Omicron responsible for caseloads bouncing from a low 3,000 a day late last year back to over 8,000 daily cases last week.
The government tightened up the borders and put a brake on Test & Go, much to the dismay of many in the tourism sector.
They are now left to contend with the Sandbox scheme which, despite being the only viable mechanism available for admitting visitors, needs a fair amount of fine-tuning.
Sandbox branches out
On Jan 11, the Sandbox scheme branched out to include the entire provinces of Krabi and Phangnga, the two world-renowned sun and sand playgrounds of the South.
Also, Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao, which are all located in Surat Thani, are now recognised as Sandbox areas in their own right under the “Samui-Plus Sandbox”, rather than onward destinations as they were previously.
Tourism authorities are pinning their hopes on the latest Sandbox additions to at least make up for the revenue voids left by the suspended Test & Go programme.
Experts have warned that if more Sandbox areas cannot be opened during the period when Test & Go is suspended, the country stands to lose revenue during the high tourism season and have to wait until the end of the year, a scenario which does not bode well for tourism’s recovery.
On the first day of the Jan 11 Sandbox opening, 3,700 people overseas applied for a Thailand Pass to enter the Phuket Sandbox and another 100 to Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao as well as Phangnga and Krabi, says Yuthasak Supasorn, governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao
Theerapong Chuaychoo, Koh Samui district chief and chairman of the district’s disease control centre, said visitors landing on the island’s shore must obtain a Mor Chana QR code for contact tracing.
On their departure from the island for other provinces, they must then have the code scanned.
As of Jan 13, Koh Samui recorded 32 infections with no deaths. The island is treating 165 people with Covid-19 and has 296 vacant hospital beds available although more beds are being prepared in case of a surge in caseloads.
To date, the Samui Plus Model (including Koh Phangan and Koh Tao) introduced on July 15 last year, the Samui-Plus Sandbox and the Test & Go programme have brought in 12,068 overseas visitors via 382 flights.
Of them, there were 30 imported cases of Covid-19, or 0.24%. The programmes have generated a combined 38,091 room nights with 1,496 people booking another 12,879 room nights.
Ratchaporn Poonsawat, chairman of the Tourism Association of Koh Samui, said tourist visits fell by up to 30% after the Test and Go programme halted.
Local tourism operators now bank on the Sandbox scheme to shore up their losses in tourist traffic although they do not expect it will be as “potent” in spurring tourism as Test & Go.
“Germans are the biggest segment of visitors to the three islands, followed by the Russians, French, Britons and Swiss. The upcoming groups are Israelis and Ukrainians,” he said.
Limitations remain, however, as Koh Samui is served by few direct flights from overseas. In addition, some accommodation outlets have run into problems complying with the SHA (Safety and Health Administration) Plus hygiene and safety standards.
Mr Ratchaporn said he met Tourism and Sports Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn recently to convey concern that tourist arrival targets via the Sandbox scheme might not be met.
He has suggested the government reinstate the Test and Go programme in the third quarter of this year.
“Certain regulations are not practical or suitable for the Sandbox arrangement.
“For example, the drinking ban after 9pm should not apply to visitors in Sandbox accommodation because they can’t go anywhere and the controlled environment is safe.
“They should be free to do what they please on the premises of the hotels which passed health safety standards,” he said.
The association will take up the issue with the government and recommend a review of the Sandbox rules. “We need to keep the tourism industry going at a time when we’re still clueless as to when the pandemic will end,” he said.
The Test and Go programme was able to recoup 50-60% of losses in tourism revenue compared to the pre-Covid period. The past six months have turned the economies of the three islands around.
Local residents and tourism operators have done everything in their power to minimise any risk from the pandemic which could ruin their tourism cash cow.
Dr Jarichart Ruangwatcharin, head of Surat Thani provincial health office, said 86% of Surat Thani’s population is vaccinated.
He was working to lift the vaccination rate to 100% next month.
Ramluek Assawachin, chairman of the Koh Tao Tourism Business Association, said he expected to see a silver lining for the island as hotel bookings were up.
Surat Thani governor Witchawut Jinto said many overseas tourists felt confident travelling to the islands because they trust the public health system and measures to maintain health safety.
Krabi is ramping up isolation facilities for tourists infected with Covid-19, setting up both community isolation centres and asking hotels to set aside hotel rooms for infected tourists with mild symptoms.
Sasithorn Kittidhrakul, president of the Krabi Tourism Association, said a total of 84 hotels have agreed to allocate 10% of their rooms to look after infected tourists along with their partner hospitals.
The province has about 3,000 hospital rooms and another 2,000 alternative quarantine (AQ) rooms, she said.
“We’re doing our best not to affect the bed occupancy of local people,” she said.
Hotel isolation by hoteliers and community isolation by state agencies is scattered among tourist islands including Koh Phi Phi, Koh Lanta, Koh Ngai, Railay beach and Ao Nang, she said.
Ms Sasithorn said the tourism sector is aware of the need to seek cooperation from business operators in providing isolation facilities because Krabi is a top destination for foreign visitors.
The province reopened to international tourists on Nov 1 when it welcomed tourists from the Phuket sandbox scheme.
It started welcoming direct flights on Dec 1 and saw some 3,000 arrivals.
However, she said there are many questions from tourists concerning rules and restrictions during the transition after the government suspended the “Test & Go” scheme and introduced the extended sandbox.
A lack of communication is likely the cause and the issue is expected to clear up, she said, while citing one case of misunderstanding in Phuket.
In this case, Krabi-bound foreign visitors who arrived at Phuket airport were barred from leaving the plane despite meeting the qualifications of the Thailand Pass system.
The tourists were allowed to disembark eventually after the tourism association stepped in to coordinate between agencies concerned, she said.
According to Ms Sasithorn, average foreign arrivals for the province are estimated at 500 per day, no more than 1,000 at most, and the number largely depends on the entry rules and the spread of the Omicron variant.
Krabi’s daily Covid-19 testing capacity is about 3,200 for both domestic and international tourists, she said.
A frequent change in travel and entry policy will cause confusion among travellers who may skip Thailand and choose other destinations, she said. Krabi is known to be a favourite spot for European holidaymakers.
Ms Sasithorn acknowledged it is a challenge to detect and contain the transmission because this variant is known to be causing milder illness.
Universal protection methods including masking up when visiting crowded areas will be stressed, she said.
With estimated arrivals of 500 per day, the province expects to generate between 300-420 million baht from the extended sandbox scheme from now until the end of April.
Ms Sasithorn said shortages of antigen test kits (ATK) are also looming in the province. She called on the government to ensure an adequate supply of the screening tool at a reasonable price.
The prices of ATKs range from 40 baht to 100 baht per set while clinics charge between 250 baht and 300 baht per visit, she added.
Prasert Wongna, chairman of the Koh Phi Phi Tourism Business Club, said the islands were not benefiting much from the Sandbox policy as it has yet to witness a solid booking.
However, for a brief period around the New Year, the number of tourists to Koh Phi Phi shot up thanks to the Test & Go programme. But all that is history now.
The Sandbox scheme is less popular because it entails many conditions, Mr Prasert said, adding it would be lucky to tap 10% of tourists from the pre-Covid volume.
Painting a grim picture, he said around 50-60% of hotels on the islands have stayed open amid the uncertainty.
Thai tourists were few and far between now that the Thai Thiew Thai (Thais Travel Thailand) tourism promotion campaign has ended and holiday weekends were over. A new phase of Thai Thiew Thai would give tourism its much-needed shot in the arm.
Pongsakorn Ketprapakorn, chairman of the Tourism Council of Phangnga, lauded the latest Sandbox expansion as key to the revival of local economies.
The province has suffered a staggering loss of tourism revenue, which spiralled downward from 52 billion baht in pre-Covid 2019 to two billion baht in 2020.
He said the revenue was down to zero from early last year to the reopening of tourism in the middle of last year. The Phuket Sandbox was also pumping some tourism revenue into neighbouring Phangnga.
In December, revenue was back to 40% of what it was in the same period before Covid-19.
However, any hope of further growth was dashed with the termination of the Test & Go programme.
During the Sandbox scheme, Phangnga receives 200-300 visitors a day, who spend 5,000 baht on average daily.
Before the pandemic, 80% of visitors to the province were from overseas, mostly from the UK, Germany and Scandinavian countries and 20% were Thais. After Covid-19, the numbers were reversed.