Tuesday, 21 September, 2021

Why Phuket's 'Sandbox' pilot project matters to other islands in Asia

Why Phuket's 'Sandbox' pilot project matters to other islands in Asia

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More than 10.5 million visitors in 2019. Over $13 million in international tourism income. Close to 90% of the local GDP.

It would be an understatement to say that tourism fuels Phuket's economy.

Before the pandemic, the picturesque Thai island -- known for its sun-soaked beaches, diverse dining scene and colorful nightlife -- was ranked the 15th most-visited place in the world by UK-based market research company Euromonitor International.

That same year, Indonesia's most popular island, Bali, welcomed almost 6.3 million visitors. Phu Quoc in Vietnam, 5.1 million. Malaysia's Langkawi, 3.9 million. The Maldives, 1.67 million. And Boracay, in the Philippines, 1.6 million.

Tourism employs at least 15.3 million workers across Asia-Pacific, according to a report by the UN's International Labour Organization.

So it should come as no surprise that Thailand's Phuket "Sandbox" pilot project -- which started welcoming fully vaccinated travelers for quarantine-free holidays on July 1 -- has captured the region's attention.

According to the rules, travelers need to spend at least 14 days on the island in a SHA+ accredited hotel before they're able to travel into the rest of the country, but are allowed to travel freely on the island.

"Thailand is a massive economy in Asia, and everyone loves the 'Land of Smiles'," Phil Anthony, a Phuket-based wellness coach who runs travel consultancy RetreatAdvisor.com, tells CNN Travel.
"So if Thailand can show that we can handle things quite well -- I think it will matter a great deal to the rest of Asia and perhaps pave the way for more of these sandbox models."

Trouble in paradise

For Anthony, who also operates a food and nutrition company called Nana Bowls, the Phuket initiative is a welcome experiment.

"When travel came to a halt in 2020, many people were scared. They closed their businesses and laid off staff, selling their properties and assets. They just kind of hunkered down," says Anthony.

"Other people, like myself, took it as an opportunity to realign their brands and services, update menus and really think about the future ... Hopefully, we can get back to full pace soon because so many people have lost their jobs."

Since the sandbox started last month, Anthony has observed a trickle of travelers visiting the island. Already, he has welcomed two friends who can work remotely.

"My friend did the swab at the airport, waited for results at his hotel, and within six hours, we could go out and get dinner together," he says. "It felt so good to sit down with a close friend and give him a hug."

As of August 1, Phuket has welcomed 14,910 international arrivals, including returning Thailand residents opting to avoid a two-week hotel quarantine in Bangkok.

And while that is a fraction of pre-pandemic numbers, experts say slow but steady growth should enable officials to monitor the situation and adapt as needed.