Phuket open to tourists but hits snags; Bali watches and waits - South China Morning Post

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Over the past few weeks, Indonesia has seen day after day of record-breaking new case numbers that are now nudging 57,000, with up to 1,000 lives lost daily. Bali has been recording just under 700 new cases per day (based on a seven-day moving average) – nearly 20 times more than figures from the first week of June.

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Domestic tourists take pictures on Canggu beach, Bali. Photo: Getty Images

“It is impossible to open again with this Delta variant,” Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment, said at an online press conference on July 1. “We’re not even thinking about it any more.”

, with the strictest set of social restrictions seen in Indonesia since the start of the pandemic. Restaurants and cafes have been limited to takeaway service; stores and beaches have been closed; and manned checkpoints have popped up across the island. With little social security, many of Bali’s 4.3 million people are going hungry.

“My job is selling roasted corn on Uluwatu Beach,” says Lalu Fazal. “But because of the regulations, I haven’t been able to sell in a week. Now my baby and son are sick. I need money for my kids’ daily needs.”

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A beach vendor on a beach in Bali. Photo: Getty Images

Indonesia’s finance minister, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, is scenario planning for four to six weeks of emergency measures, but Dendi Ramdani, vice-president of industry and regional research at Mandiri Bank, says: “Based on the rise in Covid-19 cases in January, it will take three months to lower to an acceptable level of 5,000 to 6,000 new cases per day.”

By Dendi’s estimate, Jakarta won’t entertain the idea of reopening until the first week of October, and experts who advise the government are not likely to give their blessings for a reopening until a number of key health and safety metrics are achieved.

The first is the percentage of tests that come back positive. According to the World Health Organisation, the proportion of positive Covid-19 tests should remain below 5 per cent for at least two weeks before a destination reopens. In Indonesia, that figure is currently above 30 per cent. Dr Dicky Budiman, an epidemiologist who has helped formulate Indonesia’s pandemic management strategy for 20 years, believes that the positivity rate will have fallen to 10 per cent by October.

 Ian Neubauer

A lone tourist on Kuta beach, in Bali. Photo: Ian Neubauer

Hospital occupancy is another metric that needs to be measured. Data from the country’s Ministry of Health shows the average occupancy rate at Bali’s three largest hospitals is 82 per cent – and rising. Udayana University Professor Gusti Ngurah Mahardika, Bali’s most senior virologist (who is also developing a vaccine), says the rate has to be “below 50 per cent” before Bali can reopen.

The most important metric, Gusti Ngurah says, is that at least 70 per cent of the population should be fully vaccinated. Nearly 18 per cent of Bali’s population has been fully vaccinated, and 65 per cent have received one dose as of July 16. With around 70,000 doses now dispensed every day, the island is currently on track to reach the 70 per cent target by October, essentially turning the entire island into a green zone. A new law that requires even domestic tourists to pass gold-standard

instead of less reliable rapid tests will help keep it that way.

Once medical experts give the OK, civil servants will likely need at least a month to clear the paperwork needed for a reopening. For all these reasons,


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Domestic passengers at I Gusti Ngurah Rai International Airport, the main airport in Bali. Photo: Getty Images

That prediction is sure to make corn seller Lalu Fazal lose even more sleep – and may convince thousands of tourists, who normally visit Bali for their end-of-year holidays, to look to Thailand. However, preliminary reports from Phuket suggest the real race – the one to resuscitate the island’s decimated tourism industries – is still to be won.

After a passenger tested positive on arrival in Phuket on July 6, 13 people on the same flight from the United Arab Emirates were sent into hotel quarantine at a cost of just under US$1,600 per head – despite them all testing negative. Twelve members of that group are now demanding to be sent home with refunds for their hotel bookings and flights.

The incident suggests the Thai government doesn’t trust its own testing regime, with one Bangkok newspaper dubbing the sandbox a “prison vacation”. Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was also forced to quarantine after being photographed standing next to a businessman, who later tested positive for Covid-19, at Phuket’s airport at the opening of


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Locals and some of the first tourists to arrive in Phuket enjoy the beach in Nai Harn. Photo: Getty Images

While Phuket opens up to the world, other parts of Thailand are being hammered by its worst outbreak since the pandemic began. On July 16, the country reported a daily record of 9,692 coronavirus infections, and at least 58 Thai nationals who arrived in Phuket via the sandbox scheme have tested positive for the virus. Three-hundred and thirty-three sandbox visitors identified as close contacts have been forced into costly quarantine.

It seems unlikely authorities will allow foreign tourists who’ve spent 14 days in Phuket to travel to Bangkok, which is now under partial lockdown and a 9pm curfew. Kusak Kukiattikoon, chief of the Phuket Provincial Public Health Office, has blamed a cluster of 10 new cases on Thai people travelling overland from other parts of the country.

To complicate matters, it was reported on July 11 that two Myanmese children, too young to have been vaccinated, had tested positive for the Delta variant after arriving in Phuket. In response, the government ordered all schools on the island to close for 14 days and all bus services to Phuket have been suspended.

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The Big Buddha on the island of Phuket. It now seems unlikely authorities will allow foreign tourists who’ve spent 14 days in Phuket to travel to Bangkok. Photo: Getty Images

What will happen if the

, as it has everywhere else it has surfaced? Will the thousands of foreigners now holidaying in Phuket be forced into hotel quarantine at their own expense before being unceremoniously sent home?

These are the tough questions the authorities in Bali won’t have to worry about for the time being, as the island hunkers down and inoculates. The race to reopen, given ever-evolving complications, is starting to resemble that between the tortoise and the hare.

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