A Whole Lotta Lanta
As Phuket continues its geared up development drive towards an increasingly urban resort landscape, travellers are looking further afield in a move to get out of the box.
One nearby set of island's, Koh Lanta, has all the makings of a classic resort destination. West coast sunsets, white sand beaches and the international airport within close proximity. Lanta is made up of a few small islands with a Yai and a Noi framing the story. For practical purposes most tourists know the bigger Koh Lanta Yai which is where the hotel scene is at the forefront.
From a hospitality perspective, two landmark hotel developments which are over a decade old - the luxury Pimalai Resort and Spa and Costa Lanta. The former was able to transpose a Phuket-like luxury pool villa element to the destination and was also able to sell hotel branded villas with great success. While the latter remains a strong design statement by leading Thai architect Duangrit Bunnag that has garnered global accolades for its simplistic yet innovative approach to a resort.
Traditionally, the tourism trade has similar characteristics to Khao Lak and Krabi in that it's a strong market for Scandinavian snowbirds who flock to the island for extended periods during the winter. There are even dedicated schools set up to accommodate these temporary residents. Of course the gap in seasons has created a very defined high and low season trading climate which is gradually starting to shift.
A key development is the bridge between Lanta Yai and Noi. In the past, travellers have had to take two sets of car ferries between the islands and mainland which has been a strong deterrent to development. In 2011, a bridge between the two islands started development and is expected to complete by the middle part of this year - though a recent visit we took it appears that a delay may occur. Our course there is still one remaining short span to the mainland, but this broader connection is a significant improvement.
The peripheral area south of Krabi is also seeing infrastructure increase with the recent introduction of a new upgrade at Krabi Airport. Another lead indicator is the new Krabi Nakharin International Hospital recent opening which is a step up in medical care for both locals and overseas visitors.
With Phuket busting at the seams, an emerging marine scene is evolving which has been tapped into by Krabi Boat Lagoon who have just completed construction of their first condominium building, and more are on the way. Sales have been buoyant, spurred by an unlikely market - Thai investment buyers from the nearby Southern catchment areas. There is little large-scale property development in the surrounding areas so this sector has responded well to the offering.
By the middle of this year, a new clubhouse will be completed at the facility, and much like the associated Boat Lagoon in Phuket did for the market, the expectation is that a growing critical mass will attract broader interest given Phang Nga Bay's attractive year round access.
In terms of tourism, Koh Lanta and Krabi are also starting to feel the emerging markets with an onslaught of new direct international flights to the gateway Krabi Airport. Both Chinese and Eastern European travellers are rising and to date there are four Thai airline carriers who fly to the destination domestically.
Speaking to hoteliers on Koh Lanta, for many the past decade has created a sense of speculation that things are not moving fast, but all we have to do is look north of Phuket at the rapid transformation in annual hotel occupancy in Khao Lak and the proof remains that the world is changing. For real estate, there still remains limited offerings and, for now, tourism is the lead industry but again things will shift for the simple reason that the fundamentals of the destination remain strong.
While Koh Lanta may seem a world way, the truth is, it's getting closer and closer by the day.