Last Wednesday night, I watched a TV news report about the “taxi mafia” crackdown operation in Phuket with great interest.
The crackdown was carried out by a combined police and military task force which arrested altogether 73 people allegedly involved with the infamous “taxi mafia” in this Andaman tourist paradise. The following day, there was a follow-up report with some police officers removing the posters and signs of those illegal taxi centres.
Thumb-ups for this operation blitz that was to wipe out illegal taxi operators from Phuket. It at least showed that the Thai police could enforce the law if they wanted to.
The taxi mafia is one of the major problems that has tarnished the image of Phuket for ages with heaps of complaints from foreign tourists who have fallen victim to this illegal operation which charges over-priced fares for a poor service. Before this, the complaints simply went nowhere.
I still remember when many organisations including the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), private tourism associations, the Phuket governor, and even a group of diplomats went to the island to find ways to tackle this difficult problem, along with the police, but there were no reports of progress. It was so bad that some tour agents in Europe threatened to divert their customers to other tourist destinations.
According to the Phuket Land Transport Office, there were 287 taxi “queues” — operating spots based on routes — with nearly 5,000 taxis. Of the total, 3,594 are illegal black-plate ones.
Pol Lt Gen Panya Mamen, commissioner of Provincial Police Region 8, said about 70 taxi queues were operated by mafia groups, and police had questioned 150 individuals from 51 local private agencies whose businesses were affected or were intimidated by the gangs.
The police showed a picture of a bamboo hut built by these gangsters to block the entrance of a hotel that refused to allow them to do business on its premises. It was demolished in the crackdown.
The police chief said these taxi gangsters had damaged Phuket’s tourism over the past few years as some foreign tourists did not want to return to the island.
Putting aside the taxi mafia issue, I would like to see the authorities move forward to solve other tourism-related crimes and fraud in Phuket. They should also make services, in particular transport fares, more reasonable. Phuket transportation is known to be expensive and even the song thaew taxi service costs up to 200 baht a trip.
Phuket will be better and attract more tourists if we solve these problems and our sea, sand and sun will charm us with their magic once again.
Strict action against crime and mafia groups will work better than any marketing campaign. This can lead to sustainable tourism.
In fact, Phuket’s tourism remains strong without any impact from the months-long political chaos in Bangkok.
What’s more, the number of international tourist arrivals to the resort island actually grew by 6.9% to 962,953 in the first quarter of this year, while the tourist industry in Bangkok faced a sharp drop, according to the TAT.
I think the Phuket taxi mafia crackdown is a good start for the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) in rooting out tourism-related crime across the country. It should put the issue on its priority list as the country is in dire need of income from tourism.
I think the police have awoken from a “Sleeping Beauty” state. They should keep working hard and be examples for other government agencies and it requires no extra budget to achieve this.
The world should get a clear message that our country is safe for tourists; and we have superb hospitality services, rich cultural heritage and beautiful natural environments that suit high-end markets.
If our country is the house, all its family members should work hand in hand with each other to make our place safe and homely, so guests will be impressed and feel comfortable staying with us.
Krissana Parnsoonthorn is Deputy Business Editor, Bangkok Post.