Highlighting Phuket Town
Phuket continues to ramp up visitor numbers faster than a shopaholic running up credit card debt, and what motivates tourists to visit the island is well-known.
Our island is one best known for its white sand beaches, coconut trees and soothing tropical breezes. Value comes into play, as do leisure activities such as golf, yachting and of course nightlife. But at the heart of the matter, the single biggest demand generator remains the dream of a beach holiday.
Cultural tourists these days have long ago abandoned Chiang Mai for more exotic locations and Brand Thailand today is mainly about affordability, easy access and mass numbers.
So what about out island's cultural heritage treasure – the one that features Sino-Portuguese design and Chinese influences? Of course, I am talking about Phuket Town.
We have all been to various events that promote the area, experienced the hype, and seen the cosmetic changes that brought about the rebirth of Phuket Town. But the revival is arguably due to the commercial burnout of what used to be the island's retail hub.
Hypermarts, community malls and frenzied urbanization are pushing development into every nook and cranny around the island.
It's true that most hotels in town have enjoyed commercial success, but that hasn't translated into the kind of international branding experienced in other parts of the island. Accor's Novotel raised its international flag for some time, but once things came to a crunch the numbers just didn't add up.
Visitors were primarily Thai, with a smattering of foreigners who seemed to believe all of Phuket was a beach and were left wondering what time was high tide on Deebuk Road.
The question for many remains how can the area attract cultural or niche tourists who are not of the mindset that "life's a beach" and want some culture.
Penang certainly has been a focal point of the Sino-Portuguese and historical building preservation movement. Thumbing an article in a recent edition of Travel + Leisure I see names of restored boutique properties such as Hotel Penaga, Muntri Mews, Moon Tree 47 and Yeng Keng Hotel.
Another big buzz is the restoration of Campbell House, built in 1903. These guys are getting it right. Why can't Phuket?
We've all seen the public relations attempts to gain UNESCO status for Phuket Town, but presently this seems to be something along the line of a gastro-eating fest destination. While there are some very nice local eateries there, I'm not sure that this is the right tactic.
It takes money, planning and long-term strategic initiatives for projects like Georgetown in Malaysia to take root and prosper. I've often wondered why hotels at Cape Panwa or Koh Sireh don't open up shops or restaurants in town, using their proximity to add an attraction for guests.
Instead, they are hellbent on trying to imitate resorts Bang Tao, Mai Khao or Kata, vying for the very same guests rather than venturing into new territory.
Singapore's well-documented love of boutique hotels in its own older quarter is a welcome change for many visitors, but for Phuket our fascination seems to only focus on the new and glossy versus the more challenging process of upgrading with love, respect and a sense of tradition.
New is not always better. For Phuket Town the clock is ticking if it is to take the progress of the past few years forward into something more tangible and long lasting.
While all that glitters may not be gold, Phuket Town's treasure trove of cultural attraction remains buried for the moment.