The Covid-19 pandemic has heavily affected the livelihoods of Phuket residents. Has the Sandbox Programme improved their situation?
Mike has been a taxi driver in Phuket for the past 15 years, driving tourists to and from the airport. But since Thailand closed its borders to international tourism, he earns less than half of what he used to.
“It is not even enough to cover living costs”, he said, “like paying rent or maintaining my car.”
He is not alone.
Mai, a massage therapist at one of the most popular spas in the island, has seen her salary drop dramatically over the past two years, yet she feels fortunate to have kept her job.
“Before the pandemic there were 120 of us. Now we are only 8.”
Due to its economic reliance on tourism, Phuket has been one of Thailand’s most affected provinces during the pandemic.
The announcement of the Phuket Sandbox Programme, which allows tourists to enter the island without completing a quarantine, signalled to many locals the end of a long and difficult period.
“I think the Sandbox is good,” said Ratchanee, who has kept her travel agency open over recent months despite minimal income.
“We cannot close Phuket all the time. We have to open, and when we open, find a way to deal with Covid together,” she said.
But three months after the launch of the Sandbox Programme, few are seeing significant differences in their situations. While there are more tourists in the island, numbers remain low when compared to before the pandemic.
“There used to be lines of tourists waiting to come in”, says Wan, who works in a souvenir shop. “Now, some days nobody buys anything […] it’s still quiet.”
Mai explains that before Covid, her spa used to receive entire busloads of tourists every single day. Now, even after the Sandbox, “most of our customers continue to be locals,” she said.
An additional hurdle is that official guidelines advise tourists to only use services with SHA+ safety accreditation, which is not accessible to all businesses.
“I am not able to offer my services to most [tourists] because as an independent driver I do not have an SHA+ license,” said Mike, “It will be a long process to get customers.”
Ning, a yoga teacher, explains that a large part of her income used to come from tourists who requested private classes in their rented villas. As the Sandbox Programme requires tourists to stay in SHA+ hotels, this part of her income has not recovered.
“It is difficult for me to teach online,” she said, thinking about alternatives. “Many of the positions I teach require me to manually adjust the student, which is only possible in face-to-face classes.”
Ning has begun to sell coffee from her studio as an alternative source of income.
Like her, many other small business owners previously relying on foreign tourism have adapted their business models to the current situation.
Somaung, whose business selling beach hats failed in the early stages of the pandemic, became aware that the government was offering free space for food vendors by the beach. He began to sell dried squid to local beachgoers.
“It’s a good business because everyone still needs to eat,” he said. But “now most of my customers are Thai, so the Sandbox has not really affected me.”
Although there is little tangible change in people’s livelihoods at this stage, many have high hopes for the situation after November which will see the full reopening of Thai borders to tourists from countries deemed low risk.
“I hope that as the Covid situation improves, people will feel comfortable enough to come to the studio and learn in person again”, says Ning, who is developing new marketing materials to publicize her yoga classes.
Similarly, Mai says, “I love my job and I want to continue working as a massage therapist. I just hope that after this year, enough tourists will come back to cover our living costs. Though maybe not busloads as we had before,” she said. “That was too much”.
Others are more sceptical about efforts to reinvigorate tourism: “the Sandbox supports big chain hotels, but the locals don’t get anything,” said Dam. “In a couple of months there will be no more waves. I will stop surfing and work in the fishing industry until the situation improves.”
By Ana Norman Bermudez