PHUKET: With 2013 having drawn to a close, Phuket’s top-ranking officials and leading tourism industry figures appear to have avoided a year of stagnant growth, which was almost brought on by the ongoing anti-government protests (click here for our special report) and a slew of other issues that continue to plague the island.
Phuket protesters bring flowers. Photo: Gazette file
Tourism officials in both Phuket and Bangkok reported in late August that the trend in official tourist arrival statistics was on pace to achieve a record-breaking year-end figure: about 26.3 million nationwide, with about one-third of these typically including Phuket in their itineraries.
Reasons for the optimism stemmed from a highly successful 2012, a 12-month span of relative political stability that, not surprisingly, ended up a banner year: 22.4 million international visitors, up 16.2 per cent over 2011.
Few countries are more reliant on foreign tourism as a source of revenue, and no Thai province more so than Phuket – and despite the fallout from the current protests, Phuket seems on track to have another record-breaking year.
“Even though the official 2013 tourist figures for Phuket have yet to be released, I think this year we will break the record,” said Santi Pawai, director of the Phuket Office of Tourism and Sports.
“According to last year’s tourist statistics, about 10,288,000 people came to Phuket, and our raw data for January to November  shows that over 10.6 million tourists came to Phuket. We think the year end total can reach 12 million people,” he said.RECENT HISTORY
Phuket has faced recurring “high season killers”, including the 2004 tsunami disaster, which literally washed away the 2004-2005 high season.
The most recent military coup in mid-September 2006 did nothing to help the industry that year. Subsequent tourism-killing events in the form of tit-for-tat political protests from 2008 to 2010 –burning down shopping malls, closing the main airports, shooting people in the streets, and what have you – were largely confined to the “low seasons” of those years.
Following the last general election in July 2011 that saw Yingluck “Poo” Shinawatra emerge as the new premier, hopes were high that the appearance of political stability would boost the tourism industry to new heights that year.
Those hopes were sadly washed away by the terrible flooding in the Central Plains and Bangkok late that year. Hydrologists confirm that the scale of the flooding stemmed not only from heavy rainfall, but also by decades of poor, some would say non-existent, land use “planning” in the Central Plains.
The floods serve as a reminder that the Central Plains are, in fact, floodplains; covering them over with concrete and bitumen remains always ill advised because, until there is a major change in the laws of physics, water will continue to flow downhill.WEATHERING THE STORM
However, Phuket saw an increase in domestic tourism and real estate investment by Bangkokians concerned about living in a “water world” in 2011 (story here
). That trend continued throughout 2012 and 2013, with numerous new real estate projects continuing to mushroom all over the island – even as many never-occupied units remain up for rent or sale.
The obvious oversupply now has some investors fearing that Phuket could soon experience a “bubble bursting” price correction in many market segments.
Flash flooding last year (story here
) continued to be a major source of woe for many, with some of the hardest hit areas not surprisingly in densely built-up commercial areas, such as along Rat-U-Thit 200 Pi Road in Patong (story here
) and in parts of Phuket Town (story here
), to name just a few.
One area of particular concern for the future is the Samkong Intersection on the bypass road (story here
), where several large, new commercial and residential property developments are now underway and work on another underpass project has just begun.
Work on a 21-million-baht project to shore up Klong Bang Yai (story here
) – the main drainage path for water from most of Kathu, Phuket Town and parts of Rassada – have been delayed well past the scheduled completion date of December 28, and it will be a race against time to see if the work is completed before the arrival of the next monsoon season. Until the rains come, another problem likely to return to the waterway is pollution.
A relatively late onset to the southwest monsoon in March and April last year resulted in pollution levels high enough to leave many residents of the Samkong area in Phuket Town physically ill (story here
A villager points at the foul klong. Photo: Gazette file
There were also reports of mass fish deaths from toxic shock in the waterway in 2013. The source of much of the foul inputs was later alleged to be the growth in residential developments to the north along Pracha Uthit Rd, which runs roughly parallel to the bypass road.
Despite Phuket’s overwhelming reliance on the natural environment as a selling point to visiting tourists, pollution control devices as simple as Roman era technologies like “grease traps” (story here
) and septic tanks with leaching fields are still not required on most individual units in such developments.UNDER THREAT
Beyond doubt, the largest tourist market for Phuket in 2013 was the Chinese market, deriving from the 4.41 million Chinese nationals who visited Thailand between January and November last year.
While the Middle Kingdom is not only the great final frontier of Phuket tourism promotion, it is also a place that takes a markedly different approach to dealing with anti-government protests (story here
The threat to the nation’s largest source market for tourists started to rear its ugly head when the Pheu Thai Government made its ill-timed passage in November of a controversial amnesty bill, seen by political opponents as a means to whitewash past crimes of former Thai Premier Thaksin Shinawatra. This set off a series of protests that continue today.
The Government of Thaksin’s sister Yingluck did everything possible to get the protesters to stop, effectively quashing the bill in the Senate and even dissolving Parliament – but to no avail. Aware that they are in the electoral minority, the protesters led by former “Democrat” party heavyweight Suthep Thaugsuban now say they want an appointed caretaker Prime Minister rather than Ms Yingluck, as is specified in Thailand’s current Constitution.
The protests continue today with no apparent end in sight (story here
) and the prospects for any real national reconciliation remain gloomy. Many foreign missions – those of almost all major source markets – continue to warn against “all but essential” travel to the Kingdom; spending a week on the beach in Bang Tao or boozing it up with the babes of Bangla hardly qualifies. PROTEST CENTRAL
Here in Phuket, with our all-important and highly seasonal tourism economy, one might think it crazy to risk the island’s reputation by forming “mobs”, as groups of protestors are inevitably described in the vernacular media.
Protesters take to the streets. Photo: Gazette file
The actual situation is quite the opposite, however. Despite the possibility of tarnishing its reputation as a “safe” destination, Phuket remains an important regional center of anti-Thaksin sentiment and activity.
As we enter 2014, support for an ill-defined and decidedly undemocratic “road forward” proffered by the protest leaders remains as strong as ever in Phuket. This has been evidenced by near daily protests in front of Phuket Provincial Hall, where vendors of nationalist, anti-government souvenirs now appear to be a permanent fixture.
The Phuket protesters, while peaceful, obviously have a great deal of free time on their hands. A mass rally convinced the Governor to close down Provincial Hall for almost three weeks, while small protests forced the temporary closure of other government offices on the island.
It has not been a good year for Provincial Hall. A series of protests at the site by people opposed to the construction of a new Provincial Hall (story here
) on the Sanam Chai Football Field across the street started in March, but evaporated just as mysteriously about six months later – just about the time a bomb exploded in a Provincial Hall parking lot trash can (click here
Damage from the blast. Photo: Gazette file
Nothing came out of the investigation into who was responsible for the unprecedented blast, but the event did highlight the appalling lack of security at the time at the seat of provincial power.
In typically reactive fashion, CCTV cameras of the type already in place at just about every mom-and-pop shop on the island were hastily installed, and Civil Defense Volunteers in commando fatigues are now often seen posted on security detail at the main gate – another new talking point for tour guides leading busloads of tourists through the area.
It also did little to prevent the discovery of a pickup truck rigged with two gas cylinders as a bomb parked in the Phuket City Police Station car park (story here
In retrospect, it seems that the whole “Save Sanam Chai” protests served as a kind of dress rehearsal for the larger protests that were to follow; in fact, one of the key protest leaders in both demonstrations was one and the same man: feisty former Rassada Mayor Suratin Lian-udom.
The fiery orator may have taken some inspiration from catastrophic fire in his neighborhood in mid-October that reduced the sprawling “SuperCheap” retail complex to a smoldering pile of char, melted rebar and toxic waste (video story here
The site smoldered for days. Photo: Gazette file
Fortunately for the tourism industry, coverage of what had to be Phuket’s single largest inferno ever quickly faded in the local, national and international media – in large part because no deaths were reported (story here
Some view the lack of fatalities as a near miracle (story here
), others as proof that the blaze must have been intentionally set in order to cash in on two existing insurance policies – although it is virtually inconceivable that any insurer who took even a cursory glance of the facility before the fire would ever have offered to insure it.
A third popular theory, also unsubstantiated, is that there was a major cover up: many lives were in fact lost, but that fact was never revealed because the victims were illegal Burmese residents (story here
). Perhaps inevitably, there have also been rumors that “disembodied souls” now inhabit the area.
Spiritual conjecture and conspiracy theoreticism aside, the management of SuperCheap appears to have but a single gear: full throttle forward. They had makeshift tents (story here
) set up at the site and were back in the discount retail business within days, even as the last remnants of the old facility continued to smolder.PROTEST TOURISM
As a testament to Phuket’s creativity, the growing penchant for protest coupled with a well-entrenched “tourism uber alles” mentality has seen some crafty private tour operators walking foreign tourists around the protest site at Provincial Hall before ferrying them up nearby Khao Toh Seh to feed the monkeys and enjoy the views thereupon.
Khao Toh Seh has become popular with tourists. Photo: Gazette file
Development of Khao Toh Seh Park (story here
), under 25-million-baht in funding from the Phuket Provincial Administration Organization (PPAO) over the past two years, has seen it emerge as an important, new tourist attraction in Phuket Town – and has been much better received than its last major tourism investment: the poorly visited Musical Fountain at Saphan Hin.
For many foreign tourists, especially the aforementioned Chinese, the chance to see genuine political protest in action is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For residents of Phuket Town or neighboring Rassada, however, the protests just added a new dimension of misery to Phuket’s ever-worsening traffic problems.STREETS OF PHUKET
On the subject of traffic, the ill-conceived underpass at the Darasamuth Intersection near Central Festival Phuket that got underway in late 2012 is still under construction and looks likely to continue to add to motorists’ misery well into 2014 (story here
Construction continues into 2014. Photo: Gazette file
A similar project a few kilometers north is set to begin at the Samkong Intersection near the Tesco-Lotus supercenter (story here
), while officials are also studying ways to set up yet a third such project at the notorious Chalong Circle (story here
), the source of much snarly frustration for residents in the south of the island.
However, the Highways Department does deserve credit for one major achievement over the past year: shoring up a section of Phra Baramee Road over Patong Hill (nicknamed “Mt Mayhem”) that appeared doomed to an inevitable collapse earlier in the year (story here
). As usual, the bulk of the most dangerous aspects of the work appears to have been performed by migrant laborers from Burma.
Everyone agrees that improving Phuket’s abysmal public transport system would be the best solution, but the only real progress in this regard in 2013 was the introduction of a long-awaited “Airport Bus” that launched in July (story here
The Airport Express needs support. Photo: Gazette file
Unfortunately this one ray of light in an otherwise dark, mafia-ridden realm has had real problems catching the attention of arriving and departing tourists (story here
). Hopefully the current “high-season” will allow them to recoup considerable losses incurred over the first six months.
The bus service would also stand to benefit by extending its service into Kata-Karon, but don’t expect that to happen any time soon.
As we enter the new year, initial efforts by authorities to “reclaim the streets” from illegal taxi ranks in Patong seem to have enjoyed success (story here
). Whether this positive stride forward can continue in other areas into 2014 to provide long-suffering tourists with parking at popular beaches and a break from intimidation by taxi and tuk-tuk drivers who claim the public roads as their own domain remains to be seen.