Battle for the Beaches
Tourism remains Phuket's number one economic indicator and ask any of the islands many visitors what is deciding factor in taking a holiday to the island and more often the not the answer is its beaches. While we have a myriad of tourist attractions, growing number of golf courses and marinas, two large shopping centers, spas and international medical treatment the key demand generator remains these stretches of white sand where the waves make landfall. As of late both the national and local media have sparked a good amount of interest ranging from issues about land developers limiting access to local fisherman, the damaging of marinas to the marine environment to the most recent being published reports of the new Provincial Governor being denied beach access as he was conducting low profile inspections.
Read between the lines and clearly there is a witches brew of issues boiling under the surface here concerning the course development is being conducted here and the strange bedfellows it makes with local commerce and the much wider community. More concerning is the undertone taken on a wider class issue being rich versus the poor and exploitation of natural resources for gain. These are topics that are not going to go away and this is only the tip of the iceberg of what is shaping up to long term challenge for Phuket.
From a legal perspective all of Thailand's beaches are public. Here in Phuket no construction is allowed within 30 meters from high tide and while many cases of encroachments are intended to report infractions to the building control department and police, in many cases these are directed to the Governor's office for resolution. The Civil and Commercial Code of Thailand specifically addresses public land and includes not only beaches but highways, waterways and lakes. The geography here makes access often time an issue as many resorts such as Le Meridien and Amanpuri/Chedi have natural boundaries that restrict locals from simply walking onto the beach without passing private property.
While the environment and protection of the livelihood of those living below the poverty level are admirable objectives, at the same time the question that has to be answered is shouldn't the same zealous campaigns be conducted on squatters who's restaurants and shops lay within the public domain, or illegal beach chairs and going into the water the dangerous and in many cases fatal jet ski and parasailing operations. Arguably these block the way of locals wanting to enjoy a beach picnic and internationally there has been large scale outcry about jet skies damaging marine life which ultimately effects the fish population and in turn the fisherman's welfare. Looking at Prince Edwards Island on Canada's far bound eastern seaboard where fishing the Grand Banks was a primary livelihood for generations as the fishing conditions changed tourism moved in to replace and supplement what turned out to be a dying way of life.
As in any issue so much of what is at hand is within a nefarious grey area. If you are a tourist visiting Phuket do you want to spend your days on hot sand with no beach lounger available to you, or drinks stand to grab refreshment. There is a reason all of the much loathed and often commented entrepreneurial beach facilities are there in the first place in that visitors to the island want them. Remove them entirely and where will the tourist lounge on the beach. Same for jet skies and parasailing, with limited tourist attractions these vendors arguable provide a loose tourist infrastructure that has evolved and worked over time. If you apply the letter of the law across the board, there will no doubt be empty beaches from loungers and vendors but also empty of tourists. Phuket is a mass market with over 40,000 hotel room and 5 million visitors last year who need and want beach based facilities.
Ultimately the reality is there is no quick fix or an easy answer. One thing Thai's in general are extremely capable of doing is finding compromise solutions. So while we can point to tourism models in such places as Hawaii, the reality is that a large among of lower income employment and livelihoods are covered by these quasi legal operations. Logically on a much wider scale is the need for not only beach access but facilities such as enough parking slots, sanitation and public toilets, and safety for swimmers as well as those walking along the oceanfront areas. Improving education for the impoverished and offering job opportunities in higher paying tourism jobs will alleviate much of the presumed repression of the pool.
Summing it all up fishing and marina issues are not going to be resolved in this column but as in all things in Thailand there has to be a balanced and pragmatic view as to what are the biggest problems and looking into grandfathering forward new solutions. A fresh face in the Governors office is an opportunity for new ideas to come forth and in all things there is potential for improvements. While a select few may enjoy lovely views of the ocean from their upscale villas, in all likelihood when you venture onto the beach in front just don't expect not to share the beaches with the public.