Clock ticking for Phuket to reinvent itself
Phuket, Thailand's top tourist destination, has experienced the worst hardship in the country as a result of travel restrictions with international airports shut down for almost six months.
With no foreign tourists, most business operators are close to bankruptcy, with tens of thousands of workers losing their jobs.
This is the first severe difficulty for this tourist paradise since it was hit by a tsunami in 2004. At that time, after recovering from the shock, the province bounced back quickly as business operators and authorities rushed to reconstruct buildings and infrastructure damaged by the deadly waves.
But the coronavirus is different. Travel restrictions, as a virus prevention measure, means tourist arrivals from overseas are down to zero -- as well as tourism-related revenue.
As the pandemic impact is global, some people may find international tourism too expensive and they will suspend travel plans for at least one or two years as they wait for the virus's threat to fade.
The dim situation has forced Phuket business operators to push for the island's reopening before the end of this year. For them, it's a do or die measure.
Phuket relied heavily on foreign tourists who accounted for nearly 70% of its 14.4 million visitors in 2019. Tourism generated more than 480-billion-baht in income for Phuket last year, with about 90% of revenue coming from international visitors.
Backed by local business owners, the Ministry of Tourism and Sports announced a controversial "Phuket Model" to lure visitors from non-risk countries such as Australia and New Zealand.
Prospective tourists are required to test for the virus before they board a plane; they will have to take another test before they enter the country, followed by 14-day quarantine at designated places in Phuket. The visitors must pay for accommodation costs during that time.
Initially, the ministry planned to launch the Phuket Model this month. If successful, the ministry planned to adopt it elsewhere.
But the second wave of Covid-19 that emerged in many countries, plus local scepticism over prevention measures, caused the ministry to abort the launch.
Evidently, there is no fast-track for a Phuket recovery. Yet it would be wrong to entirely blame the coronavirus for the conundrum.
Since the government eased domestic travel in June, it has introduced several campaigns to encourage local tourism with the hope of revitalising the economy.
The fact is, a large number of Thais are not keen to visit this province. Its bad reputation regarding overcharging and the high cost of living, food and accommodation is the major reason Thais look elsewhere when planning a trip.
Though several hotel operators have slashed room costs to make Phuket more attractive, it doesn't help much. Phuket, despite its beautiful beaches and cultural attractions, comes behind other popular destinations such as Chiang Mai and Pattaya.
Apart from the expensive food and accommodation, public transport options such as tuk-tuks and taxis are limited in Phuket, and most of the time they overcharge (a friend of mine was charged 200 baht to travel 2 kilometres.)
Tourist scams and mafia activity is a chronic and unsolved problem. In short, Phuket has taken the wrong path during its 30 years of tourism development. Local business operators and authorities have focused on amassing income.
The issues of safety, fair prices, and the environment have not been addressed enough. Once in a while, local news would report brawls between taxi drivers and tourists over rip-off fares. Weak law enforcement enables resort owners to build structures on hilltops or release untreated wastewater.
Phuket once attracted Chinese tourists, the world's largest outbound visitors. However, Chinese tourists may not return to the island in droves in the post-Covid era. The province lost its shine for this group of travellers even before the coronavirus.
Very likely, Chinese tourists could follow the trail, set by those from Europe who opted for other exotic, yet cheaper, destinations such as Myanmar and Vietnam.
"If we want to get Thai visitors, we can't overcharge people. We need to change our approach," said a one participant at a local business meeting at Patong early this month.
Phuket should spend this time to clear up the mess, reposition themselves, and focus on quality and sustainability as a core of tourism development, with effective measures to improve tourist safety, and better regulations and collaborations that stop cheating and scams and protect the environment.
Anything less than this, will not be acceptable. But it has to do it quick and the clock is ticking.
Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.
Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.