Phuket’s Big Buddha with Kata Beach behind it. The Phuket Sandbox tourism scheme that allows visits by people vaccinated against Covid-19 launched in July. Photo: AFP
Destinations known
by Mercedes Hutton
Destinations known
by Mercedes Hutton

How Phuket’s ‘sandbox’ scheme became entangled with an alleged murder, highlighting the vulnerability of solo female travellers

  • A 57-year-old Swiss woman ‘believed to be raped and murdered’ was on the Thai island under the pilot sandbox tourism scheme
  • Once borders reopen and leisure travel returns, destinations across the globe must do better to ensure the security of each and every tourist

The problem with being a pioneer is that all eyes are on your every move, be they good or bad.

The Thai resort island of Phuket and its way-paving “sandbox” programme have been widely hailed as an exemplar for Asia’s battered tourism industry. “Phuket reopening offers model for Asia as travel bubbles burst,” proclaimed news service Bloomberg on June 16. On August 6, CNN Travel affirmed “Why Phuket’s ‘sandbox’ pilot project matters to other islands in Asia.”

However, since the scheme allowing fully vaccinated international arrivals to enter the island without undergoing quarantine started on July 1, it has attracted a smattering of negative press, too.

Less than a week into the experiment, 14 tourists were sent to “alternative local quarantine” after being considered close contacts of someone who had tested positive for Covid-19 upon arrival on the island. Twelve of those in isolation asked to be sent back home rather than stay in Thailand, and in doing so made headlines.

A lone vendor walks behind a sign on Patong Beach in Phuket, days before the sandbox scheme launched. Photo: AFP

Then, on August 5, the body of a Swiss woman was found in Phuket and the sandbox suddenly became mixed up in something altogether more macabre.

“Swiss woman found dead in Phuket sandbox” ran the Bangkok Post’s headline, entangling the tourism industry initiative with the tragedy. The deceased, identified as 57-year-old Nicole Sauvain-Weisskopf, was found “lying face down in the water among rocks about one kilometre from the entrance of the Ao Yon waterfall”, in southern Phuket. According to the Bangkok Post, “She was believed to be raped and murdered”.

Welcome to Indonesia’s ‘new Bali’ – site of alleged human rights abuses

As in pre-pandemic times, news of foreigners falling victim to crime while on holiday travels fast. Now, with so few tourists roaming the region, the focus on the horrific is magnified.

Much was made in the media of the fact that Sauvain-Weisskopf was in the country because of the sandbox scheme. Like the Bangkok Post and several other news platforms, British rag the Daily Mail made sure to mention this in its headline: “Swiss woman, 57, is found ‘raped and murdered’ at the bottom of a waterfall after travelling alone to Phuket as part of Thailand’s ‘Sandbox’ scheme bid to revive tourism”.

On August 7, the day that national police chief Suwat Jangyodsuk, who had flown to Phuket to oversee the investigation, announced that he had “good news” and the case was “all wrapped up” with the arrest and reported confession of a 27-year-old Thai man, the Bangkok Post ran an op-ed denouncing the awful incident as “The shame of Thai tourism”.

“Needless to say, this recent murder has further tarnished the reputation of Thailand’s tourism industry, turning ‘the Phuket Sandbox’ into the scene of a terrible crime,” it read. “The death of the Swiss tourist will bring more attention to the lack of safety measures and infrastructure at tourism sites in the country.”

An international passenger finishes his Covid-19 swab test following his arrival in Phuket under the sandbox scheme. Photo: AFP

The real victim here, however, is not Thailand’s tourism industry but Sauvain-Weisskopf, whose death reminds us of the vulnerability of solo female travellers.

Two years ago, this column questioned how safe Asia was for women who adventure alone after the body of a 26-year-old German backpacker was found on the Thai island of Si Chang. She, too, had been raped and murdered.

“We have evidence that shows that women face risks that men don’t face in public spaces, at home, wherever they may be,” Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, told The New York Times in 2019. That report detailed how “violence against female tourists was a thread in the broader fabric of violence against women around the world” and that “violent episodes are just as likely to occur [...] in rich Western nations such as France, Italy and Germany as in the developing world”.

Once borders reopen and leisure travel returns, destinations across the globe must do better to ensure the security of each and every tourist, especially the most vulnerable. As the Bangkok Post notes: “To make this possible the authorities and the tourism industry must remember that tourists are guests in our home, they’re not just a source of revenue.”

The CCTV room at Vietnam’s Alma Resort.

Vietnam resort takes guests behind the scenes

Have you ever wondered what happens behind the scenes at a hotel? One Vietnam resort plans to reveal all… once it reopens following a forced closure as coronavirus cases surge in the country, that is.

Alma Resort, in Cam Ranh, in the South Central Coast region, has designed a “Back of House” tour that will lead inquisitive guests around areas normally deemed off limits – such as the staff canteen, the laundry and uniform rooms, the water treatment plant, and the CCTV and fire panel room – dispersing “interesting facts” along the way, according to promotional materials.

To wit: “28 staff in the laundry room wash an average of 26.4 tonnes of laundry a week including 49,690 towels, 2,320 bedsheets and 1,160 pillow cases,” states the press release – posing the obvious question: does each bed have just one pillow?

People fight at a Beijing wildlife park, apparently prompting some animals to do the same. Photo: Weibo

Humans set wrong example for animals at Beijing wildlife park

We are well aware us humans have a negative impact on the environment around us, degrading entire ecosystems and increasing the temperature of the land and the ocean, to the point of no return. However, a group of animals at a wildlife park in Beijing made it even more obvious that they’d be better off without us recently, after apparently mimicking a fight that had broken out between visitors earlier in the day.

According to Chinese tabloid the Global Times, “Animals in a zoo in Beijing have amused the public [...] for following suit and fighting with each other after witnessing tourists fight, which is believed to be their first time to see humans fighting.”

The hostile humans were at Beijing Safari Park on August 7 when an argument broke out. “They were shouting at each other, tore at each other and many tourists and animals were watching,” the park authority wrote on its official WeChat account.

“Insiders said that the animals near the fighting site were impressed by the event as it was the first time they’ve ever seen a fight between humans,” reported the Global Times. “In the evening, some animals followed suit in their own animal houses and started fighting. The scene was out of control.”

Talk about leading by example!