Summer dreams dashed in divisive beach clean-up
Vendors have been driven off the sand in resort towns across the country, but dealing with the fallout is causing bigger waves than anyone anticipated
For many Westerners who visit Thailand, the ideal tropical holiday means lounging on a sunbed on the beach, having a massage while the cool ocean breeze sweeps through, and ordering food and drinks from vendors who ply their wares along the sandy coast.
That familiar image defined the charm of Thai beaches until the National Council for Peace and Order stepped in and took over running the country last year.
Tourist destinations were ordered to tidy up as part of plans to cleanse Thailand under the command of NCPO chief and Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha. Beach vendors — particularly in major resorts such as Hua Hin and Phuket — were hit hard.
Many had spent decades forging a career based on selling goods to tourists, and their sole source of income was savaged overnight.
Sign of the times: The zero-tolerance approach to beach chairs, umbrellas and vendors in Phuket has affected hundreds of people. Sellers are now restricted to operating on 10% of the beach.
The clean-up started in July last year in Phuket, where problems with local taxi mafia, beach vendor bullies and jet ski thugs were out of control. A month later, Hua Hin faced up to its own karma, for the sale of overpriced seafood on the beach.
The clampdown on the two beach towns shared the same intention — to rid Thailand of corruption. The country relies heavily on income from the tourist industry, so tidying up these popular destinations was top of the to-do list.
Cleaning up ingrained problems with graft is a tall order. But for locals, dealing with the aftermath has been even more difficult.
Prapa, who inherited a beach vending business from her mother, had been working in Hua Hin for more than 20 years. She said she had suffered since the NCPO decided to target her way of life.
“I have to pay off my car, send my kids to school, and I have employees to take care of,” Ms Prapa said. “Hua Hin Municipality provided us with a new area to operate our businesses, but the income we earn each day has dropped dramatically.”
Along the six-kilometre stretch of Hua Hin beach, tourists have long been familiar with permanent beach umbrellas buried into the sand, alongside beach chairs and tables, food sellers and vendors offering activities such as banana boat rides and jet ski hire.
But in August last year, the military came in and aggressively cleaned up the beach front. A total of 66 vendors were operating on the beach and 22 shops were demolished.
RULES OF PLAY
Hua Hin chief district officer Sutthipong Klai-Udom said the 22 shops that were destroyed had breached an Interior Ministry memorandum of understanding made in 1991. The remaining 44 vendors are covered by a different MoU made with Hua Hin Municipality in the year 2005.
The 22 vendors were accused of encroaching on a public area by building permanent structures on the beach and ordered to vacate. The other 44 vendors are still able to operate their businesses in front of the Sofitel Hotel, but under stricter rules.
Part of the 1991 MoU states that vendors are not allowed to build permanent structures on the beach. The MoU also says land owners or businesses have the right to move vendors on if they are unhappy with their conduct.
One local vendor who wished to remain anonymous told Spectrum that three of the 22 vendors had been set up on a part of the beach in front of a house belonging to a military general. But no one can prove this is the reason for the crackdown.
The 22 vendors who were forced to move had their livelihoods destroyed overnight.
They made a complaint to the municipality and were allowed back on the beach front for a while, between Hua Hin Soi 67 to 69, before being ordered to move again, to Hua Don beach in Takieb.
Before: Hua Hin beach used to be packed with sun loungers and umbrellas, as well as vendors selling food, drinks and trinkets to foreign tourists.
DUMPED IN TAKIAB
Hua Don is separated from the busy part of Hua Hin by Takiab hill, which creates a natural fence and majestic backdrop to the beach. Stretching 520 metres, the beach is a haven for tourists wanting to escape the busy town.
The semi-circular bay boasts calm and clean waters, making it the perfect place for a peaceful holiday and a hidden gem of Hua Hin. But the once quiet spot is now home to the vendors who were forced to leave the main beach in Hua Hin.
“Our beautiful community is becoming the newest slum of Hua Hin,” said one Hua Don resident. “I’m happy that Hua Hin beach has been cleaned up finally, but I don’t understand why they have to dump these people in our area.”
Nalinvirun Pankarn, the owner of Riot Cafe, is among the locals who are unhappy with the decision to move the illegal vendors and place them in front of her business area, where she said she paid tax to operate legally.
“Vendors have set up beach lounges right in front of my cafe and are cooking food there. They block the view and disturb many of my customers,” Ms Nalinvirun explained.
“They also take many of my customers since they operate closer to the sea, which we are not allowed to do.”
Trisadee Deelasorn, the owner of Sopa seafood restaurant, has experienced similar problems. She said her business has become dirtier, due to the large number of people coming solely to use their toilet facilities. But that is not her main concern.
“What I am more worried about is that these beach vendors are not friendly. They bully us and they are always rude,” Ms Trisadee said. “I am afraid that some of us might get hurt by these people one day.”
Patipan Maneetong owns the Krua Ban Kru restaurant and several plots of land in the Hua Don area. “I was about to sell land worth 120 million baht to an investor. But since the vendors were moved here, the deal was cancelled and I am unable to sell, because it is no longer a peaceful area,” Mr Patipan said.
Locals said Hua Hin Municipality failed to make any official order or hold a public hearing before they moved the vendors to Takiab. All they did was storm in with the military and allocate vendors to their new spots.
“We tried to stop the military and asked to see an official order for the move, but he told us that if anyone had a problem with the decision, they would be taken away to a nearby military camp for a week of attitude adjustment,” said local resident Nu. “Then none of us wanted to mess with him.”
Laying down the law: Tourists in Hua Hin used to be herded onto sun loungers. Since regulations to restrict beach furniture came in, many sit on the sand, but not everyone is happy about the changes.
ALL OR NOTHING
When officials failed to offer a solution to the problem, locals came up with a compromise, intended to cool tensions between the two parties.
“If we are not allowed to operate under the same rules as the beach vendors, I suggested that none of us should be allowed to operate on the beach,” Ms Nalinvirun said.
Many residents disliked the fact the beach had become occupied by unwelcome vendors, and officials were unhappy that locals were making a fuss.
Rungroj Poonsak, a representative for the umbrella and beach chair club of Hua Hin, told Spectrum the vendors had no problem with vacating areas where land owners were unhappy with their presence.
However, he said that also meant the owners themselves would also be prevented from using the public beach to benefit their businesses.
“We obey and respect official decisions, as long as they have a back-up plan so we can continue to make a living,” Mr Rungroj said. “We are not happy to be forced out from the original area, but if officials come up with an alternative plan to help us, we are willing to follow the law.”
Mr Rungroj said vendors had simply moved where they were told since the Hua Hin clean-up started. They moved to Hua Don beach — as ordered — but faced a barrage of criticism from local residents.
One of the vendors, Mr Sang, said he felt unsure about his future and wanted locals to consider his plight.
“They will never understand our struggle. They are rich but we are poor. They can take a whole month off and still have money to spend, but one day without working for us means we have nothing to eat,” Mr Sang said in tears. “We have to make money somehow, and this is the only way we know how to do it.”
NO SUMMER DREAM
While Hua Hin vendors fight for their right to make a living, beach workers on the country’s Andaman coast are facing an even worse fate.
Compared to Hua Hin, Phuket suffers far more complicated problems connected to criminal groups and powerful local politicians. The NCPO prescribed a clean-up of the whole island, ordering that all illegal structures on the beaches be demolished.
A couple of months after the clean-up in Phuket, former Cherng Talay Police superintendent Paworn Pornpromma admitted crime rates in his area had gone up, because large numbers of former beach vendors were now unemployed.
In February, police were patrolling Patong beach in Phuket when they found a group of tourists sitting on their own beach chairs. They ordered the tourists to remove the chairs, stating that all furniture was outlawed from the beach.
A Thai person videoed the incident and posted it to his Facebook page. Part of the clip showed one of the tourists — who knew nothing of the law — sit down on the beach and cry.
The local police had printed a sign to inform people about the law in both English and Thai, but their translation skills left something to be desired.
It read: “No summer dream on beach, start 12 Feb 2015.”
The local police later explained that they had thought the words “summer dream” meant “beach lounger”.
NEW BEACH ORDER
The zero-tolerance approach to beach chairs, umbrellas and vendors in Phuket has affected hundreds of people. Many beach sellers have pleaded with the NCPO, begging to be allowed to operate their businesses again.
The new governor of Phuket, Nisit Jansomwong, said he would not allow vendors back onto the beach since that would risk reigniting old problems which were difficult to solve.
He told Spectrum he was running a new beach management policy as part of a three-month trial.
The governor said he was trying to keep tourists happy, while allowing locals to make a legal living.
“We are allowing locals to rent out umbrellas and beach mats on 10% of the beach, in a predetermined area,” Mr Nisit said. “Tourists who don’t wish to rent them can bring their own beach accessories and set up wherever they want outside of the designated area, but they can’t bring umbrellas to that 90% of the beach.”
Within the 10% allocated to vendors, locals are allowed to offer massage services and sell some non-alcoholic beverages, Mr Nisit said. There are also service areas selling drinks, but no food sales are allowed.
“Outside of the 10% zone is an umbrella-free area,” Mr Nisit said. “But 100% of the beach is smoke-free. We are also discouraging tourists from bringing food to eat on the beach, but it is OK to bring light snacks, such as potato chips or cookies.”
Those who want to rent umbrellas on the beach can only operate from 9am to 4pm. By 4.30pm, they must have tidied up completely. Mobile drinks vendors face punishment if they operate outside the designated service area. They are no longer allowed to stroll around the beach to sell their products.
The governor has also ordered that swimming areas be separated from where jet skis or speed boats operate. There are now five swimming areas on Patong beach, each spanning 500 metres. Jet skis can be used behind the swimming areas, to avoid a return to the frequent accidents of the past.
The beach management trial period is set to end soon. The governor has assigned a group of lecturers from the Phuket campus of Prince of Songkla University to conduct research into the scheme. The results will be used to inform future policies to make Phuket a better place.
After seemingly endless arguments and discussions between officials, locals and vendors, Hua Hin district chief Mr Sutthipong chaired a meeting to make a final decision on how to settle the conflict in Hua Don.
All those concerned about the issue attended the meeting held at Hua Hin Municipality last week.
After the hearing, Mr Sutthipong said the 22 vendors ousted from Hua Hin beach could return to the area between Hua Hin sois 67 and 69.
All local business owners will now have to follow the same rules.
“During the high season, from Nov 1 to April 30, everyone will be restricted to setting up beach chairs and umbrellas within an area measuring six by 15 metres. During the low season, business operators will not be allowed to set up beach chairs, but they will be allowed to put out beach mats with umbrellas upon the arrival of any tourists,” Mr Sutthipong said.
If anyone breaks the rules, they will be banned from working on the beach.
After the meeting, there was a mixed response. The beach vendors were happy with the result, since they are allowed back on their old turf.
“We feel grateful to the NCPO and local officials for allowing us to operate on the beach," Mr Rungroj said.
“This is a much better policy than in Phuket, where they’re not allowing any beach vendors at all. We had no idea that we were disturbing the locals in Hua Don as much as they said. We are sorry and were always willing to negotiate.”
NO PLEASING SOME PEOPLE
However, some Hua Don business owners are less than happy about the new rules.
“Many of the tourists who come to Hua Hin are retirees,” Ms Nu said.
“Does that mean we will have to leave older people to try and get up and down from beach mats during the low season, when it is difficult for them to move around as it is? This is ridiculous.”
Capt Teerapong Namsala, an officer from the 15th Army’s peace and order unit, told Spectrum he felt sad to see local people taking a selfish approach to vendors.
“We could enforce the same laws as Phuket, but I live here and understand that beach vendors have no other way of making a living. I am glad it has turned out like this and everyone is happy with the result,” he said.
Capt Teerapomg said Hua Hin Municipality will now sign a new MoU with the 22 vendors, allowing them to operate their businesses under the revised rules.
“Even if the NCPO is no longer in power, the rules will still be effective under the MoU,” Capt Teerapong said.
Mr Sutthipong said he was trying to promote Hua Hin as a sunny and family-friendly destination, where people are healthy, the town is safe and education is important to residents.
“We are living in the King’s town. His Majesty the King has a palace here in Hua Hin, so we can’t damage the image of the King’s city,” Mr Sutthipong said. “The beach clean-up is part of long-term sustainable tourism plans, to make Hua Hin a world-class destination that appeals to everyone.” n