Covid outbreak won't deter latest sandbox

Covid outbreak won't deter latest sandbox

Samui Plus still new, needs more time to prove worth, organisers say

RELIEF FROM THE HEAT: Women prepare for a dip in the water on Koh Samui which has reopened to overseas visitors.
RELIEF FROM THE HEAT: Women prepare for a dip in the water on Koh Samui which has reopened to overseas visitors.

Wooing back tourists to Koh Samui comes attached with the danger of a Covid-19 infection flare-up which could deliver the island's much-hyped sandbox programme a knock-out blow.

The discovery last week of more than 50 Covid-19 cases on the island confirmed the island's worst fears. However, tourism operators and local authorities have set the record straight and insisted the sandbox scheme, regarded as the island's tourism lifeline, will press on.

Koh Samui in Surat Thani is the second island after Phuket to reopen under the sandbox programme which welcomes fully-vaccinated foreign visitors who are subject to travel on sealed routes and mandatory Covid-19 tests.

On July 15, the Samui Plus programme was launched with visits permitted to the islands of Koh Phangan and Koh Tao nearby.

Overseas tourists have also flown directly from Phuket along the Andaman coast to Koh Samui to experience the island in the Gulf of Thailand.

As the Phuket sandbox ushers in a slow and cautious return to business, the Koh Samui sandbox counts on its tourism reopening to restart its local tourism-dependent economy as well.

A sandbox success in the two islands carries hope a similar scheme will be replicated in other provinces and reverse a slump of more than a year in tourism which accounts for 10-15% of GDP.

The Samui Plus sandbox model was unveiled 15 days after Phuket heralded in its own sandbox project with much fanfare. As the two sandboxes appear to be staying the course, Phangnga and Krabi provinces are rolling out their carpet to welcome foreign visitors today.

However, a surge in virus caseloads in Koh Samui last week threatened to derail its sandbox programme. Local authorities have rushed to allay growing fears.

ALL IS WELL

Theerapong Chuaychoo, Koh Samui district chief and director of the district's Covid-19 situation administration centre, said 185 overseas tourists came to Koh Samui as a second stop through the Phuket sandbox.

Only one foreign visitor was infected with Covid-19 and is being treated.

Mr Theerapong said visitors who made the trip via the island's own sandbox programme were tested upon arrival on Koh Samui. They are required to stay in their hotel rooms for three days even if the result turns up negative.

On the fourth day, they are free to leave their rooms and venture out within designated zones of their hotel. They are also tested for a second time on the fifth day.

"After the second test, assuming it comes out negative, visitors are free to travel about on the island with Covid 19-education volunteers in tow.

"They can set out on their own from the seventh day onwards though they still can be contacted and traced under the public health surveillance system," he said.

Those who began their sandbox trip in Phuket were given a clean bill of health because they had to test negative for Covid-19 before leaving the island province for Koh Samui.

The district chief said the cluster of infections on Koh Samui -- where 124 cases were reported as of Friday, including an eight year-old student who contracted the virus from his teacher who had been to a party -- was traced mostly to entertainment venues and a fitness centre. Of the 124 infections, 108 caught the virus from entertainment activities on the island and the rest were from other provinces.

Public health measures were stepped up and stricter health checks underway to contain the transmission. An alcohol ban was also in effect to prevent gatherings while people entering and leaving the island face rigorous health screening procedures, in addition to a requirement that they are vaccinated and can show proof of having tested positive for Covid-19 in the past 72 hours.

Residents leaving or entering the island must obtain permission from the authorities, Mr Theerapong said. "The Samui Plus programme is going well," he said.

"The cases we have detected are mostly intra-island infections. They may have rattled confidence (in the sandbox programme) somewhat. But it is not the fault of the sandbox scheme," he said.

THE '7+7' WINNING FORMULA

The Phuket sandbox has been a success, clocking in 12,395 arrivals since its opening with 292,832 room nights booked until the end of September.

As of Friday, 113 foreign visitors have joined the Samui Plus programme, comprising 36 from Britain, 20 from Germany, 20 from France, 10 from Hong Kong, seven from the US, and four from Switzerland.

Phuket has the advantage of operating an international airport able to handle wide-body aircraft and which is served by many direct overseas flights bringing healthy passenger traffic, said Senee Phuwasetthathaworn, deputy chairman of Surat Thani chamber of commerce.

By comparison, the Samui Plus programme is less busy mainly because of a lack of an international airport. Its airport caters to single-aisle planes and passengers fly in from either Suvarnabhumi or Phuket airport. The Koh Samui and the Phuket sandboxes can both be made lucrative, however, by means of an extended travel programme where visitors spend seven days in Phuket before travelling onward to Koh Samui and staying there for at least seven days (the so-called 7+7 formula).

He added Koh Samui provides a jump-off point to Koh Phangan and Koh Tao. Being on opposite coasts, Koh Samui and Phuket offer different experiences, which heightens the travel appeal.

Mr Senee also insisted the infections logged in Koh Samui had nothing to do the Samui Plus programme whose visitors undergo strict testing. "No one should point their finger at the programme. It's not right," he said.

Despite a raft of health surveillance measures, some people who land on Koh Samui shores might withhold information about their recent travels to so-called "dark-red" areas where Covid-19 is heavily prevalent.

Mr Senee said all-out efforts have gone into reopening Koh Samui's tourism to foreign tourists from countries at low risk of Covid-19 transmission. "We need to take one slow, but sure-footed step at a time and ease restrictions as the situation improves," he said.

TOO EARLY TO JUDGE

The Samui Plus programme kicked off only two weeks ago and it needs more time to prove its worth, said Thawich Somwang, adviser to the Koh Phangan Hotels and Tourism Association.

The programme has suffered some setbacks with several flights linking the island suspended on account of the curfew imposed in provinces hardest-hit by the pandemic.

He said most tourists, who arrived from Phuket, were recorded during the first seven days of opening. It is still too early to evaluate the programme. Many Koh Samui sandbox tourists are still in the stage of health observation and testing. They have not been visiting attractions and their spending has not yet trickled down to the locals.

The direct beneficiaries are hotels that offer rooms to sandbox tourists. He said it may not be realistic to hope the scheme will bring about an instant revitalisation of the tourism sector. He said the association has updated the Tourism and Sports Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn and insists the programme will carry on despite the infections.

Surat Thani governor Witchawut Jinto said the province has not put a brake on the Samui sandbox or barred Phuket sandbox tourists from Koh Samui. The infections were largely caused by people on the island as well as Thais who travelled to Koh Samui on holidays, he said.

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