Phuket tourism experience at risk of being put on hold as Covid cases rise

(Bloomberg) – An outbreak of coronavirus cases in Phuket, Thailand’s first tourist hotspot to lift quarantine for vaccinated foreign visitors, threatens to scuttle the experience seen as a model for other tourism-dependent countries to reopen their borders .

The resort island reported 125 new cases of Covid-19 during the week ending July 27, above the government-set threshold of 90 weekly cases that could trigger a temporary suspension of the program. In response, local authorities have closed public schools and shopping malls and banned gatherings of more than 100 people from Tuesday to prevent the spread of the virus.

The majority of the new cases have been with local residents, and all high-risk contacts on the island have been isolated to prevent further spread, officials said. Only 26 visitors vaccinated out of the more than 11,800 have tested positive for the virus since the so-called Phuket Sandbox launched on July 1, they said.

The resurgence of Covid in Phuket mirrors the situation elsewhere in Thailand and the wider Southeast Asia region, where authorities are struggling to contain the spread fueled by the more contagious variant of the delta. Any decline in quarantine travel to Phuket would hurt Thailand’s plan to expand the model to more islands and resorts to save its vital tourism industry.

It may still be too early to put the Phuket model on hold, as authorities watch for other signs of a wider spread of infections. About 70% of the population of Phuket is fully vaccinated, compared to around 5% nationally, according to official data.

“We are entering a mode of tightening and reducing local activities on the island, but we have several circuit breakers in place before the suspension of the reopening program,” said Thaneth Tantiiriyakij, chairman of the Phuket Tourism Council. “With the increase in infections, our goal right now is to assess the situation day by day and week by week.”

Thailand has seen an unprecedented rise in Covid infections and deaths after a third wave emerged in early April. The country’s major economic centers, including Bangkok, have been subject to strict rules banning interprovincial travel and limiting most business operations.

In addition to the limit of 90 cases per week, other triggers for the Phuket Sandbox suspension include the detection of infections in the three districts of the island or in more than six sub-districts, the identification of more than three clusters, the uncontrollable spread of new variants and the use of 80% of hospital capacity.

Authorities will first restrict travel routes or put in place a temporary ban on tourists leaving hotels before considering a total suspension, according to Thaneth. Officials will review the situation in the coming days and decide whether further tightening measures are needed, he said.

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