Back on the beach in Thailand’s ‘sandbox’ model
With around 20% of its economy based on tourism, Thai marketing gurus can be expected to come up with innovative catchphrases. They gave us long-lasting hook lines like “Amazing Thailand” and “Smooth as Silk” for Thai Airways International. The latest is “Phuket Sandbox” as a mainstay of the country’s post-COVID-19 tourism revival program. Thais love a good pun – and “Sandbox” isn’t bad. It evokes both the main attraction of the resort and the experimental enclosure of the island of Phuket compared to the rest of Thailand.
Neither Thai humor nor the intricacies of Thai marketing were at the forefront of my mind when I walked into the arrivals hall at Phuket Airport in mid-July, just two weeks after the program started. Sandbox. More pressing was the prospect of running the gauntlet of officials dressed in personal protective equipment from head to toe.
Many documents had to be checked – entry certificates, proof of vaccination, COVID-19 test reservations, medical insurance and hotel reservation receipts – an app had to be installed and a virus test performed on arrival at the airport. After an 11-hour flight from London, the process took almost two hours.
Despite the onerous procedures, the Phuket Sandbox was a success for us. The alternative – 14 nights in quarantine in a hotel room in Bangkok – had dissuaded us from returning to Thailand earlier. During our mandatory 14 night stay in Phuket (now reduced to seven), we were free to roam and meet family from Bangkok that we had only seen on Zoom since March 2020. We ignored the downsides of bureaucracy on arrival, recently imposed the suspension of connecting flights to Bangkok and a ban on the sale of alcohol that began shortly after we landed.
We even extended our stay to four weeks, eventually renting a van for the 12 hour drive to Bangkok. But not everyone is so happy with the sandbox. The Thai government claims its achievements, but others remain less convinced.
Coming from the UK, where around 106 doses had been given per 100 people by mid-June, it was reassuring that Phuket had also achieved a high level of coverage (around 88 doses per 100 people). But prioritizing jabs for Phuket meant less for the rest of Thailand, which averaged only 10 doses per 100 at the time.
While the Sandbox program has allowed tourism to pick up after being closed for much of 2020, the number of arrivals has been modest. In the three months leading up to September 30, there were around 40,000 visitors, well below the target of 100,000 and minuscule compared to over a million arrivals to Phuket during the same period in 2019.
The true importance of the Phuket program has been a test of Thailand’s efforts to revive tourism for the high end of the year season, so perhaps the numbers are less important. But is it a good model?
One concern is that many guests are returning from residents, like my Anglo-Thai family. Most would have returned to Thailand anyway, but feared the prospect of quarantine in Bangkok. We are all guilty of moving income from Bangkok to Phuket. Our hotel estimated that 75% of its guests were returning residents, a calculation not scientifically confirmed by the preponderance of children from Bangkok’s international schools in the pool.
I met a family of real French tourists. They had planned two weeks in the seaside resort of Hua Hin, near Bangkok, after their passage in the sandbox of Phuket. But when thefts and the use of swimming pools at other resorts were banned, they decided to extend their stay in Phuket and return home.
A more fundamental constraint is government policy. Some tourists who jumped through several hoops to play in the sandbox were bowled over by the tangle of paperwork and finding certain amenities such as connecting flights and alcohol sales suspended.
Despite this, there has been substantial interest in the Phuket Sandbox, especially from other key resort areas in Thailand who believe they should have their own versions, although these aspirations may be changed if the government lifts the quarantine. for certain travelers vaccinated on November 1 as planned. The Phuket sandbox would also become less relevant at this point – perhaps proof that it was successful in paving the way for reviving tourism in the era of the pandemic.
Other countries in the region are also watching closely. The islands of Bali, Bintan and Batam in Indonesia, Langkawi in Malaysia and Phu Quoc in Vietnam are all planning to open along the Phuket Sandbox lines. Japan is considering something similar.
Even though the Phuket Sandbox model cannot save tourism in Southeast Asia, it has been an inspiration to the industry and helped bring families like mine together. It’s also proof that Thailand’s marketing elite can still do a great job of capturing a world of meaning in a grain of sand.
Simon Landy is a longtime resident of Thailand