Opening Up The Bay
There's a line in the classic Brando movie On the Waterfront which describes the Phang Nga Bay of today to a tee. The lines "I could have been a contender, I could have been somebody" tragically reflects how all Phang Nga Bay's promise has gone unfulfilled.
Usher in the conundrum of the huge body of water just off Phuket's East Coast, encompassed by vast shorelines of three provinces and offering some of the most spectacular scenery this side of heaven.
Over the years, tourism's foot-print has grown mostly on Koh Phi Phi and, to a much smaller scale, on Koh Lanta, Koh Racha, Kho Yao Noi and Koh Nakha Yai.
Just striking up the magical letter "K" on my bruised and battered keyboard conjures up images of sailboats moving with the breeze, or a hammock under some coconut tree.
Of course getting there is no easy feat as all manner of motorized beasts have been used to transport resort guests to their own castaway dreamlands. As Phuket's own highways and byways are getting as clogged as a heart attack patient's arteries, more than a few visitors want a holiday that is more laid back and natural than can be had here.
Door to door travel time remains a key factor for many travelers and the prospect of an overnight flight from Europe can be mind-numbing in itself, not to mention taking to the seas immediately afterwards.
Coming back from a recent trip to Sri Lanka, where luxury hotels in the south have tapped into a growing air-taxi industry, was enlightening. For anyone who has been to the Maldives and seen the Maldivian Air Taxi operation, the ease with which resorts transfer passengers from international flights to smaller aircraft is part and parcel of the holiday experience.
The operation has now expanded into Sri Lanka and has company, as national carrier Sri Lankan has it's own "air-taxi" out-fit. Speaking to some at the luxury hotels on the coast, many say that 30-40 per cent of their guests come via small plane.
Meanwhile back in Phuket, Phang Nga Bay's newest international resorts have struggled in comparison to the wider market, as most industry watchers are aware. Occupancy levels remain unimpressive and in many cases properties are running a tightrope balancing act between the red and black line.
Many readers will remember the ill-fated Destination Air operation that started, sputtered and stopped over financial and logistical issues. It was a good idea, but perhaps too early in the game. If you roll the calendar forward and compare Phang Nga Bay with similar destinations around the world, you have to scratch your head when asking why transport infrastructure remains so far behind the curve.
Other benefits like sightseeing trips and private charters would appear to be viable add-ons to the model.
While some may argue that the current stable of speedboats can do the job, in reality the operating performance at various island resorts points to a serious need for alternatives.
While eco-tourism remains a key objective in the area, the fact is that a large inventory of properties in Koh Lanta and, to some degree, other islands already exists. Leveling the playing field with connecting air service makes sense.
For Phang Nga Bay to continue on the road to sustainable development, keeping one eye open to the dangers of overbuilding is critical. But in the here and now, resorts have already been completed, so improving access should be a no-brainer.