Private pools, fancy meals in Phuket's 'gilded cage' quarantine
A private infinity pool, gourmet meals -- and two temperature checks a day. Welcome to five-star quarantine in Phuket, where well-heeled tourists can live in luxury while obeying some of the world's strictest anti-coronavirus measures.
After barring visitors for six months, Thailand is reopening to a small number of holidaymakers, with the first batch arriving on the southern resort island in the coming weeks.
But before enjoying the beaches, the 300 tourists from China and Scandinavia will have to complete 14 days of compulsory quarantine, including two coronavirus tests, overseen by a "war room" of doctors and security guards.
"It will be comfortable but I am afraid I might be anxious because of the confinement," said Jean-François, a French retiree living in Sweden who hopes to escape the winter in the kingdom.
"I do wonder if Thailand is doing a bit too much," he said.
At The Senses Resort overlooking Phuket's Patong Bay, 16 villas have been specially prepared for quarantine guests.
The villas, which are up to 220 square metres, were redesigned, getting rid of cushioned surfaces to make disinfecting easier, while CCTV security cameras have been installed at the entrances.
Employees have also received training at a hospital in how to spot infections, and given personal protective equipment to deliver room-service meals.
A villa converted for use as an alternative state quarantine (ASQ) room for incoming overseas tourists is seen at The Senses Resort in Phuket on Saturday. (AFP photo)
- 'Not much profit' -
"We won't make much profit from these special clients because of the expenses involved," says hotel owner Suppachoke Laongphet.
But "we had to find other sources of income to support our staff and the local economy".
His resort is one of nine properties in Phuket -- mostly luxury hotels -- with government approval for quarantining guests.
Upmarket quarantine does not come cheap: confinement at The Senses runs to about 170,000 baht, or 590,000 for a family of four. If the Phuket model proves successful, the government will attempt to replicate it in the rest of the country.
Once visitors finish quarantine, they can stay and travel freely for three to nine months on a special visa created to revive tourism.
Expectations for a record 40 million visitors this year were dashed after the coronavirus put global travel on hold, sending the economy into free-fall.
Border closures in April meant an immediate freeze to the incomes of millions of Thais working in the sector -- with knock-on effects on the service and restaurant industries.
Before the pandemic, tourism generated 93% of Phuket's income. Today, nearly all hotels and more than 70% of the island's businesses are shuttered, officials say.
But Thailand has emerged relatively unscathed from the virus with just 59 deaths, and authorities are hoping travellers can be lured back despite having to abide by strict -- and costly -- quarantine measures.
A driver with a buggy cart prepared with plastic dividers waits at The Senses Resort in Phuket on Saturday. (AFP photo)
- Police on call -
The number of visitors under the new visa scheme will likely be limited -- "just those with the means and who wish to stay several months in our country", says Kongsak Khoopongsakorn, president of the Thai Hotel Association's southern chapter.
But a tourism revival -- however small -- is sorely needed, he says.
"This is not what will sustainably improve the economy of the country but it allows us to be patient."
At The Senses resort, visitors will wake up to a view of the island's lush sloping mountains and can swim laps in each villa's infinity pool.
But attempting to leave the room could bring police at a guest's door within 15 minutes, said Thanchanok Pramkull, the hotel's deputy commercial director, while an infected guest can be taken to hospital within half an hour.
Completing quarantine does not ensure unfettered freedom – premier Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha has said visitors' whereabouts will continue to be tracked via mobile phone apps.
But the strict rules have not deterred interest. About 20 people from India and Europe have already contacted the hotel since it got approval for the programme.
"It is effectively a gilded cage," says a 50-year-old Danish visitor planning a stay at The Senses, who declined to be named.
"But it's worth it. After the quarantine we will be able to enjoy beautiful sunsets in one of the safest places in the world for Covid."