Home World Thailand's most popular island goes into lockdown as Covid-19 cases surge

Thailand's most popular island goes into lockdown as Covid-19 cases surge

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(CNN) — Kritchai Rojanapornsatit has lived in Phuket for most of his life.

Owner of a construction company, he’s accustomed to the regular traffic jams on Thailand’s most popular resort island, where large tour buses chug up and down its hilly roads as tourists weave around them on rented motorbikes, all heading for Phuket’s many beaches, ports and attractions.

The scenes that greet him now, however, are like nothing he’s ever witnessed in his 30 years of living here.

“There are no speed boats on the water, the streets and beaches are empty and there are very few tourists,” he tells CNN Travel.

“I’ve never seen it like this — not even after the tsunami in 2004.”

That’s because authorities have taken extraordinary lockdown measures to slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus in Phuket, which has emerged as the country’s coronavirus hotspot.

With 170 confirmed cases of Covid-19 as of April 10, this island of 400,000 or so residents has the highest infection rate per capita out of all of Thailand’s 77 provinces.

According to government statistics, there are about 38.95 cases per 100,000 people in Phuket, versus 21.90 per 100,000 in Bangkok. (Overall, Thailand has reported 2,473 coronavirus cases, with 33 deaths.)

Extensive testing is reportedly now underway in Phuket to further slow the pace of transmission, according to health officials.

This photo, taken on March 20, 2020, shows tourists enjoying one of Phuket's many beaches. On March 28, all of the island's beaches were closed.

This photo, taken on March 20, 2020, shows tourists enjoying one of Phuket’s many beaches. On March 28, all of the island’s beaches were closed.

MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/AFP via Getty Images

Residents asked to stay in their district

Restrictions are set to get even tighter. On April 9, the government announced a lockdown for all 17 sub-districts of the island for 14 days, asking all residents to stay home from April 13-26, “or until the situation improves.”

“The move makes Phuket the first province in Thailand to impose a total lockdown of all areas, in its sustained effort to stop the spread of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19),” says a statement from the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

“With the exceptions of medical and emergency personnel and logistics workers, all 17 sub-districts are sealed off to ensure minimum mobilization of people and vehicles.”

These measures are just the latest in a series of restrictions and closures as the island races to contain the situation.

The Phuket International Airport is now closed to all non-essential flights until April 30. The island, connected to the mainland by a bridge, has also closed its land and sea entry points, opening only for vehicles transporting necessary goods. All beaches have been closed indefinitely, in addition to restaurants, bars and non-essential shops/services.

A government order, effective from April 7, requires everyone in Phuket to wear face masks when leaving their premises, while a curfew is in place from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.

Tourists pose for photographs as an airplane descends into Phuket International Airport in 2019. The airport is currently closed to all commercial flights due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Tourists pose for photographs as an airplane descends into Phuket International Airport in 2019. The airport is currently closed to all commercial flights due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Karla Cripps/CNN

Hotels without guests have been ordered to close, while those that stay open must restrict access to communal areas including swimming pools and restaurants.

According to Phuket-based Bill Barnett, managing director of consulting firm C9 Hotelworks, there are currently five hotels that have been designated to take new bookings to accommodate any remaining tourists on the island.

“We have estimated that 80% of all hotels on the island are currently closed or in the process of closing down,” he tells CNN Travel. “Phuket has over 88,000 registered hotel rooms.”

Barnett says they’ve surveyed hotels in the Phuket Hotels Association and the sentiment is split between reopening in May or as soon as allowed, while others say they will restart in June and some at the beginning of October.

“Phuket has a large influx of snowbirds or Europeans who visit the island from October through March so this is when the upward cycle is likely to occur,” he says, adding that recent news that employees of hotels that were forced to close would receive 62% of their salary for up to three months was well received in the industry.

As for the situation on the ground, he says supermarkets remain open and food delivery services are continuing to operate.

“I was here during the tsunami and SARS but this is like nothing we’ve seen. Yet, when I look at Flightradar [air traffic over] China and see the planes flying that’s where our short-term hope for recovery is pinned,” he says, referring to China’s emergence from the worst of the pandemic, with travel restrictions now easing domestically.

In the meantime, locals in this tourism-reliant destination are doing the only thing they can at the moment. Waiting it out.

“I don’t see any tourists right now, though I still see some foreigners jogging but that’s really rare,” says Chaankayhan Kongmuang, who works as a DJ at a Phuket luxury hotel.

Chaankayhan is currently out of work due to the tourism shutdown but says he’s trying to make the best of the situation.

“The roads are empty and I’m kind of feeling that it’s peaceful. The only bad thing is no business, of course.”

CNN’s Kocha Olarn contributed to this report.

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