The Phuket Sandbox Program

International travel in the Covid-19 era

 

After a year of lockdowns, masking and social distancing I’d had enough. Fully vaccinated and itching to cross the first open border, I jumped at the news of Thailand’s planned reopening in July of 2021. Yes, it was technically possible to enter The Land of Smiles prior to that date, but doing so meant spending two weeks in an approved Alternative Stay Quarantine hotel or ASQ. And a stay in the hotel meant literally that — a sanitized transfer from the airport to an equally sanitized room, from which you were not allowed to set foot outside for 14 days, with the staff passing meals through the door and offering English- language activity books to pass the hours. No thanks.

Into The Sandbox

July 1 marked the introduction of a new entry program, dubbed the “Phuket Sandbox.” With tourism venues across Thailand in starvation mode, this was seen as a bold and innovative move to attract international visitors safely and without the prison-like hotel stay. The strategy went like this: Turn the entire island of Phuket into a quarantine zone, focus on getting at least 70 percent of the population vaccinated, control all entry and exits to the island, and test, test, test. This would allow arriving travelers the run of the island, while still maintaining the two-week quarantine protocol.

Beachside Restaurant Phuket

The upside of Phuket’s Sandbox travel was an absence of crowds at popular beaches and landmarks like this laidback beachside restaurant. Photo: Pierce Hoover

Information on the specifics of the program was not well-publicized, but after grazing several websites, including the official Thailand Consulate pages, I was able to assemble what seemed to be the necessary documentation: proof of full Covid- 19 vaccination, a two-week booking in a hotel participating in the SAH+ Sandbox program, an in- country health policy covering Covid-19 illness and a negative PCR Covid test administered within 72 hours of departure.

After a fully masked and surprisingly crowded domestic flight across the US, my first hint of trouble came as I queued for the evening flight with Singapore Airlines. The check-in line was short and mostly comprised of expats who were finally able to reenter Thailand. I noticed the guy in front of me shuffling through a folder filled with printouts, checking to make sure all was in order. I mentioned that I’d made things simple by loading the documents on my phone.

“Won’t do mate,” he replied in a thick Aussie accent, “Everything is bloody paper now, and I just barely got my COE approved and printed out in time for the flight.” Thailand’s COE, as in Certificate of Entry, is a type of documentation that is waived for US citizens who are staying in Thailand for less than 30 days.” Or so I thought.

“They changed the rules for sandbox,” my new acquaintance informed me. “Now every one needs a COE to enter.” A temperature scan and a health declaration got me as far as the airline counter, where an exceedingly accommodating agent confirmed my worst fears. Yes, all documents must be printed out, yes, a COE was required, and no, I wasn’t even close to having my credentials in order.

After two days in an airport hotel, numerous unanswered emails and calls to the Los Angeles Thai Consulate (closed to visits dues to Covid) and hours attempting to navigate the Sandbox website, I finally threw in the towel and flew home.

Phuket Speed Boats

A fleet of speedboats that ferry tourists to outlying islands sit empty and idle awaiting the return of mass tourism when visitors can head out for snorkeling trips. Photo: Pierce Hoover

A Tangled Web (Browser)

I wasn’t the only traveler who was caught at the check-in counter by Thailand’s complex reentry requirements. The Internet was soon buzzing with travel bloggers who had run into similar issues. Undeterred, I took a deeper dive into the regs, read every pertinent article I could search and kept speed dialing the Thai Consulate until someone answered.

By the first week in August, I was ready for round two. Step one involved getting an official certificate of booking from an approved list of host hotels — something that wasn’t available through the major online booking services. Instead, I had to find an email address for the hotel and begin a series of correspondences delayed by a 12-hour time difference. To issue the certificate I was required to provide proof of vaccination and Covid insurance, passport and flight information and a lot of personal details. Once all was perused and approved from the other end, I was provided a secure site for payment. Five days after the first contact, I had the needed certificate. If there was an upside to this process, it was the knowledge that a hotel room that would command better than $150 a night during normal times was mine for less than $50.

Next up was Thailand’s official entry page, which leads you through a multi-page process that required uploading all the aforementioned documents and more, including a bank statement. Fortunately, each time my attempt to submit failed I was provided with a terse explanation: document must be PDF, not screen grab; bank statement must show name and address; contact phone missing international code, and so forth.

Added to the complexity was a degree of time pressure. The website would not let you begin the process until 30 days before travel and stated that approval could take 15 business days. Doing the math, that left only a few day’s window between completion of the COEs and takeoff, and the website provided no updates other that the notation that “application is under review”.

Airport Paper Trails

Four days before my departure, the certificate finally arrived in my inbox. The final hurdle was the Covid PCR test needed within 72 hours of departure. No problem, I thought. Get it on the way to my connecting flight and results will be emailed by the time I land in Los Angeles. True— except for the fact that the airlines and Thailand immigration wanted to see that all-important paper copy. No problem for the reams of supporting documents, but with the results of the PCR test arriving as I touched down, the next challenge was finding a print shop in the Los Angeles Airport.

Fetching my bag from the carousel, I set off in search of an airport kiosk providing print services. An hour of searching and inquiries lead to the implausible realization that there was not a single in-airport business center or passenger service facility where one could make a printout. Searching the web for print services in the nearby area, I hit on a solution that avoided a pair of rushed and expensive Uber rides. With less than an hour left before check-in closed, I caught a hotel shuttle to a FedEx store located in the lobby of a Marriott, got the printout and made it back to the international terminal with minutes to spare.

Joining the rather short check in-line at Singapore Airlines evoked a sense of deja vu — and more than a little anxiety. Clutching my documents folder, I repeatedly reviewed the list of required items to ensure all was in order, and didn’t relax until I had the boarding pass and was through security. A departure that would have been a given in pre-Covid days now seemed like catching the last flight out of Saigon after the embassy fell.

From that point on it was the usual monotony of a 17-hour trans-Pacific flight, but with one added bonus: the Singapore Airlines Airbus 350, capable of carrying more than 400 passengers, was all but empty. I’d counted fewer than 40 fellow travelers in the departure lounge, and once onboard there were entire rows for the taking. I spent most of the flight stretched out and snoozing.

A Sterilized Stopover

Upon touch down in Singapore, the flight crew requested we remain in our seats, as we would be called individually to exit the aircraft with sufficient social distancing. Had the plane been close to full, this might have been a very lengthy process. Once called, I was ushered onto the jet way where a bevy of attendants stood ready, each wearing full exposure suits, Plexiglas facemasks and gloves. Singapore is famously germaphobic in the best of times, and Covid had sent the airport into containment overdrive.

Singapore Airport

The Singapore airport operated with extensive sanitation measures; passengers were separated into groups in transit holding areas as they waited to be called for flights. Photo: Pierce Hoover

As we exited the jetway, each transit passenger was fitted with a neon-bright wrist tag, color- coded according to the holding area to which we would be assigned. Once tagged and sorted, we were led off in single file procession, maintaining six-foot distances in the line, with watchful attendants at the head and tail of the procession. The airport’s extensive transit area was segmented into smaller control zones, each delineated by barriers and warning tape. Once inside the prescribed area, you could order out by phone for contactless delivery. The arrival of a meal — some 90 minutes after ordering — provided a rare chance for a brief facemask removal. Doing so without actively chewing drew warning glances from the moon-suited monitors that patrolled the area.

Boarding the connecting flight to Phuket was yet another exercise in socially distanced herding, along with repeated ID checks and two inexplicable checks through X-ray and security gates — something that seemed entirely unnecessary for passengers fully confined to a transit lounge. Once the Singapore authorities and airport staff were fully satisfied that passengers had been double checked and sanitized, we boarded an equally vacant flight for the two-hour hop into Phuket.

Phuket Islands

Exploring Phuket before the crowds return offers visitors front row seats by the sea, a view of the sunset without fighting crowds and deserted beaches. Photo: Pierce Hoover

An Island In Isolation

Entry into the Phuket airport turned out to be an orderly affair that lacked the bizarre overtones of the Singapore layover. Our arrival group was ushered into a corridor where some 200 chairs had been arranged in numbered rows, each providing appropriate social distancing. Only moments after sitting, I heard my name called, and began what turned out to be a refreshingly fast and efficient process of verifying my identity, submitting to a swab test and verifying that I had downloaded the required Covid-19 tracking app to my smart phone. I was soon moving past immigration control and retrieving my luggage. An awaiting driver flashed my name on his placard, and I was off to the Beyond Resort Kata Beach for a night of isolation as I awaited the results of the arrival test.

Phuket Kata Resort

During the Phuket Sandbox program, a room with a view at Beyond Resort Kata Beach was booked for about $48 a night, including breakfast. Photo: Pierce Hoover

Printed confirmation of a negative Covid-19 diagnosis was slid under my door during the night, at which point I was free to roam the island of Phuket, virus free and mingling with masked and predominantly vaccinated locals. During the two weeks I was to remain on the island, the only additional requirements were a daily check in at the front desk to display the QR code associated with my tracking profile, and day-five and day-13 appointments for follow up swab testing at a designated facility.

Phuket Covid Testing

The Sandbox program in Phuket required weekly Covid-19 swab testing at designated sites on the island. Negative test results allow visitors to move throughout the island. Photo: Pierce Hoover

Spending a couple of weeks on a beach in Thailand was certainly a more enjoyable way to pass quarantine that being 100-percent confined to a hotel room in Bangkok. By my calculations, there were fewer than ten guests in a resort with more than 400 rooms, which meant the pool area; fitness center and other amenities took on an almost private feel. More than 90 percent of the businesses in the surrounding area were shuttered due to a lack of tourism traffic, but the scene was different on the other side of the island, where the busy streets of Phuket city were alive with a steady flow of racing taxis, suicidal scooter drivers and lumbering delivery carts.

Phuket Kata Resort

Rows of poolside chairs at Beyond Resort Kata Beach required prior reservation during busier times but stayed empty during times of Covid. Photo: Pierce Hoover

On the 14th day of my stay, I was provided a letter that certified my participation in the quarantine program, along with the negative results of the most recent Covid-19 test. This document was my key to the rest of the Kingdom of Thailand, allowing me to catch a domestic flight or pass through the checkpoint at the single bridge connecting Phuket to the mainland.

During the first three months of operation, the Phuket Sandbox program brought some 25,000 visitors to Phuket — a mere fraction of the 10 million-plus annual visitors to the island in years past. This comparative trickle of tourism is far from sufficient to support the island’s extensive hospitality industry, but Thailand’s Tourism Authority officials proclaimed the program a success. At a time when neighboring nations such as Indonesia and the Philippines kept borders closed, Thailand had found a solution that blended quarantine concerns with vacation possibilities.

In the fall of 2021, the Phuket Sandbox program was expanded to include other key Thai vacation destinations including Krabi, Phang-Nga, and Surat Thani (Ko Samui, Ko Pha-ngan, and Ko Tao) with a further easing of entry requirements and a reduction in the length of Sandbox stays from 14 to 7 days. The program has seen further adjustments with the spread of the Omicron strain. At the same time, the quarantine/vacation model created by the Sandbox initiative is being considered by other countries in Southeast Asia.

In an era in which virus uncertainties may lead to ongoing travel restrictions and shutdowns, programs such as the Phuket Sandbox may provide a viable choice for those who value vacation travel enough to accept the limitations and complications these programs create.