Pearl loses its lustre
String of murders, taxi fare rip-offs and thefts sully Phuket's image
Phuket, as does any attraction, relies on having a positive image among potential visitors. However, such an image is always vulnerable to being sullied by high-profile crimes as well as a perceived lack of safety.
Recent news reports of crimes on the island have put the reputation of the "Pearl of the Andaman" on the line. And they've come at the least opportune time given the island province has been positioned as a prime driver to revive the country's tourism sector battered by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Provincial authorities have taken stock of such incidents and are moving fast to address them to control impacts on Phuket tourism, which is leading the way in restarting the wider industry in the country.
"We have to maintain a welcoming image. We've tried to prevent any setback to our reputation. Sometimes we succeed, other times we don't," said Pichet Panapong, Phuket vice-governor.
Since the middle of last month negative publicity has been hitting the headlines, ranging from the overcharging of taxi fares, the €5,000 (around 200,000 baht) theft against a family of Greek tourists, and a call-centre scam that preyed on a Swiss man who lost 57,000 baht.
But Phuket's image as a safe tourist paradise was dealt an even bigger blow two weeks ago when an Indian gangster, Jimi Singh Sandhu, also known as Mandeep Singh, was shot dead in front of his villa on Rawai Beach on Feb 4. His body was discovered the next morning.
Phuket's episode of bad press began in Aug 3 last year with the killing of Nicole Sauvain-Weisskopf, 57, a deputy protocol chief of the Federal Assembly of Switzerland.
Teerawat Thothip, 27, was caught four days later after police found Weisskopf's half-naked body at Ton Ao Yon waterfall two days previously.
Police said the suspect admitted sexually attacking the woman after spotting her alone at the waterfall. However, she fought back so he drowned her, then covered her with a plastic sheet before robbing her of 300 baht.
The Weisskopf murder came a little more than one month after the reopening of Phuket as part of the sandbox tourism programme on July 1.
The incident hit a raw nerve for state agencies and frontline tourism businesses which had glimpsed a modest but sustained tourism recovery after the reopening.
Authorities' concerns grew after criminal cases multiplied even as the police were working flat-out to solve them.
The cases have taken a serious toll on tourists' confidence, so much so that senior police have flown to Phuket to review the investigation themselves. The Sandhu case prompted national police chief Suwat Jangyodsuk to visit the province to follow up the probe.
Police said they have identified the suspects and warrants were being issued for their arrest.
Phuket blazed a trail in being the first province to "experiment" with tourism reopening.
From July 1 last year to Feb 10, 299,305 tourists visited the province, including those who checked into the country through the Test & Go programme which provides an easy alternative to quarantine for fully vaccinated visitors.
Tourist arrivals in Phuket are forecast to grow in the months ahead.
At the same time, Warner Brothers' Deep Blue Production is shifting its filming location of The Meg 2: The Trench movie from Krabi to Phuket. The film will be shot from April 1 to May 15.
Early last week, the filmmakers met Mr Pichet to discuss the production, which is expected to be filmed in tambon Patong.
Mr Pichet conceded crime was among the tourism industry's biggest problems. Yet the quicker suspects are caught, the quicker damage to Phuket's tourism reputation can be contained.
Phuket governor Narong Woonciew said officials had taken care of many problems. For example, the taxi issue was being straightened out by officials from the deputy prime minister's and land transport offices with help from private transport operators.
As to the theft case involving the Greek tourist family, some residents rallied to their help and donated money to the victims, which speaks of the hosts' compassion for their guests.
Overcharging of taxi fares has long been a problem for Phuket tourism. Despite the authorities' best efforts to stamp it out, tourists keep filing complaints.
The issue has sometimes reached boiling point with brawls between customers and drivers of taxis, tuk-tuk or motorcycle taxis.
Customers say fares demanded by drivers are arbitrary and unfair. The problem was raised by foreign diplomats who met the provincial governor.
On Jan 28, a wealthy Thai tourist said he was charged a 600-baht fare by a taxi for a 20-minute ride from Kamala beach to Patong beach.
The land transport office later fined the taxi driver 2,000 baht. The driver was also given demerits and sent for retraining.
In July 2019, two Australian tourists filed a complaint against the driver of a public van who charged them 3,000 baht for a 50km, traffic jam-free journey from the airport to their hotel.
Jaturong Kaewkasi, chief of Phuket land transport office, told the Bangkok Post that fares were being standardised in the province and that rates could be downloaded from the office's website. Customers can still call the office's hotline at 1584 around the clock.
"We listened to all sides before arriving at standard rates suited for travel within Phuket. The rates may vary from other provinces," he said.
The so-called Hello Phuket Service app has been approved for use by the Department of Land Transport. As well, more metered taxis will enter service and offer fares on which both the customers and drivers can agree.
A source in a privately run transport business suggested that all modes of public transport in Phuket be permitted to pick up customers at the airport to create competition. That would also deter unscrupulous practices in the transport sector.
Taxis must be barred from charging extra for collecting customers at the airport.
Mr Pichet said the use of an application to call taxis and show an estimated fare will make getting around fairer and cheaper.
Kongsak Khoopongsakorn, chairman of the Thai Hotel Association, Southern Chapter, has expressed concern about the province's overall image. Stories about the taxi fare fiasco and local murders have played out in social media.
He said the expensive taxi fares were hard to tackle. Driver picking up customers at the airport argue they must charge twice the normal fare because, coming from the city, they are permitted only to drop off customers at the airport but not pick up new ones from there.
He said some webpages sensationalised stories about Phuket transport to whip up hype. Some even invent incidents to try to drive a wedge between Phuket taxi drivers and tourists.
Mr Kongsak said the murders which had taken place in Phuket stemmed from personal conflicts. When they are blown out of proportion to conjure up a false image of Phuket being an unsafe tourism destination, the province and its tourism industry suffer.
"I ask the government to take a tough stand. Illegal weapons must be wiped out and suspects must be brought to justice in a timely fashion.
"Everyone has a part to play at being a good host," he said.
Mr Kongsak said the tourist arrivals have been stabilising in the province since Feb 1 with 2,000 to 3,000 tourists entering Phuket daily. The hotel occupancy rate is hovering between 30-40% although that number will start to come down next week.
"But we still see a silver lining with Thai tourists," he said, adding domestic tourists are expected to take advantage of Phase 4 of the Rao Tiew Duay Kan (We Travel Together) co-payment scheme and head down to Phuket.
Sonthaya Kongthip, chairman of the tourism community enterprise of Baan Bangtao-Cherngtalay, said Phuket must follow a common local-level masterplan so every stakeholder is aware of the strengths and weaknesses of local tourism.
The masterplan must emphasise fairness in the conduct of tourism business, must ensure tourists are treated fairly and see to it that tourism income is distributed more evenly.
"We have to put ourselves in our visitors' shoes. That's part of Phuket's charm," he said.
Mr Sonthaya said a consultative approach might work best in ironing out tough issues. For example, tourists should be asked what public transport fares they are willing to pay before rates are set, taking into consideration the province's mountainous geography which is a factor in fuel consumption.
As for taxi fares, he suggested a forum be held where public transport drivers can fully air their views.
Meanwhile, Pheu Thai MP for Bangkok, Anudit Nakhonthap, urged the government to quickly mend Phuket's image and avoid further negative effects on tourism's revival.
One way of tackling the problem was to recruit more tourist police, as there are only 1,800 of them in the whole of the country, he said.