Up until last week, the biggest threat to Thailand’s signature island quarantine project was the Delta variant, which is fueling a surge in COVID-19 cases across Asia. But the alleged murder of a Swiss tourist by a local resident who said he lost his job during the pandemic has shaken confidence in the plan and raised safety concerns.
The so-called “Phuket sandbox” allows vaccinated international travelers to visit the paradise island without quarantining for two weeks, which is mandatory across the country. It is a model scheme for the tourism-reliant economy’s reopening, and other islands are following suit.
It also comes at an extremely risky time for Thailand as it experiences its third and worst wave of COVID-19, spurred by clusters found at entertainment venues. The kingdom reported record high caseloads, which exceeded 20,000 daily infections and nearly 200 deaths last week—much higher numbers than in previous waves.
Now, authorities say a 27-year-old Thai man robbed and killed 57-year-old Swiss tourist Nicole Sauvain-Weisskopf, who arrived in Phuket weeks after the July 1 launch of the sandbox, which allows travelers to roam freely around the island after testing negative for COVID-19 upon arrival. After 14 days, they can leave Phuket for other parts of Thailand or stay on.
In a police press conference on Sunday, the suspect, identified as Teerawat Thothip, described what allegedly occurred on August 3. He said he was scavenging near a waterfall when he noticed a woman exploring the area. He snuck up on her and put her in a headlock, but she fought back and they both fell into the water, where he applied the same pressure until she became unconscious.
“I took her body to the waterside, covered her body with a plastic sheet held down by some rocks,” he said, adding that he then took $9 from her backpack, which he later spent on soft drinks, cigarettes and weed. He apologized and said he was fueled by economic desperation but only intended to rob her.
“I never thought she would die. It was impulsive. I had no intention of killing the tourist,” he said, begging for forgiveness.
He was tracked down using CCTV footage, according to police. Teerawat was charged with murder and robbery causing death. An autopsy is underway to officially determine the cause of the victim’s death.
Authorities in Phuket have reportedly stepped up security on the island as part of efforts to reassure travelers. The Swiss Honorary Consul in Phuket told the Bangkok Post that she was shocked by the alleged murder. Foreigners usually regard Thailand as a safe vacation destination, she said.
Local media reported that a representative from Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs met with Helene Budliger Artieda, Switzerland’s ambassador to Thailand on Friday, and expressed sorrow over the incident.
“Thank you to all Thai authorities for the swift action taken so far,” Artieda tweeted afterwards.
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