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Phuket Rolls Up the Welcome Mat

Category: , Posted:06 Sep 2008 | 12:00 pm

Much will be written in the coming days about the stunning effects of the sudden closure of the Phuket International Airport. As I type this, no doubt the latest news ages faster then a fine cheese left out in the tropical sun and we continue to live in a world of instant media. As an observer of property and tourism, I have no intention to enter into or comment on the current state of political issues facing the country. I'm not a Thai national and frankly speaking it's a choice to live in a foreign country – expatriates learn to accept the good, the bad and the ugly that they encounter.
The events of August 29-31 have touched my life, my business and certainly have long-term implications for the future. In my own field of choice it's always important to keep a positive spin on downturns and crises no matter how severe and damage control is an essential survival skill.

Over the past 12-18 months, with the coup, displacement of Thaksin, ongoing change of leadership and now the PAD action, here in Phuket the story has been, "In Phuket, things down here are different."

At times, while we are not entirely isolated from happenings in Bangkok, the most plausible pitch to tourists and investors alike has been through our door-to-door access from overseas, sending the message the relative calm of an island paradise.
However, in one short day, we were thrown into the eye of the storm making both domestic and international headlines and becoming in a pawn in a much larger game of chess. On Friday August 29, I was looking forward to a laid back weekend of relaxation, maybe going to see a movie and kicking back and enjoying a nice spate of sunny weather. That came to a sudden halt as the phone calls rolled in from a close friend in Sweden who owns a villa in Layan and was flying in for his wife's birthday to a group of business associates who were stopped from entering the airport and unable to return to Singapore.
Next were the calls from some overseas investment firms who were scheduled with appointments early in the week asking for information. Despite having lived on the island for seven years and having good hotel and other connections, it was amazing how little anyone knew or was able to advise on. I can only imagine the uncertainty of the tourists arriving and having to scale fences and plodding distances of more then a kilometer down the beach with baggage or those scheduled to leave for home not knowing how or when they could leave.
Having lived in Asia for close to 23 years, I've lived through the Peoples Power movement, ousting of Ferdinand Marcos, six coups during Cory Aquinos' tenure, the departure of strongman Soeharto and Jakarta riots, Asian financial crises, a tsunami and while living in the highlands of Papua New Guinea finding myself stuck in a hotel in the middle of trial war complete with flying arrows. Let's say my tolerance to risk is at a higher level then most.
But take the average tourist, and speaking to those stranded, words like civil war, evacuation and perceived harm to family members was voiced by many. The tragedy of the matter was the lack of information be it TAT, the authorities at Phuket International Airport, the government or any formal body to take control of the situation and take care of the many visitors to our island. This was left to the private sector to hotels and the service economy who remain the unsung heroes of this saga.
At a recent Raimon Land round-table function here in Phuket with a wide range of attendance from both leading business and important Thai executives from Thai Airways, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and the Thai Hotel Association, one overriding sentiment on the key selling point of Phuket was the quality of hospitality. At the end of the day "Thainess" is what draws people here from the simple smiles, graciousness of our local hosts and wonderful elements such as a world-class cuisine. It's easy to make Phuket your home, you feel wanted, cared for and relaxed. While we keep making our hotels bigger, more upscale brands and ultra luxury products keep upping the ante, what fundamentally draws visitors and investors here is a unique and exotic culture with a warm and friendly people.
What happened on August 29 runs counter to everything this island and tourism stand for, and for close to two days the welcome mats rolled up and as a similar strain of notes we all know from the classic Eagles song Phuket become the Hotel California where you can check-in but can never leave…

As we move into high season, the increasing hotel and property supply need stability and peace in order to erase the effects of a tarnished image. Tourism is the number one earner in Phuket, and the day-to-day livelihoods of the hospitality, service and property sectors run long and far into ever economic segment of the population.
Hopefully, there have been lessons learned and – as stated many times in this column – the need for a definitive province-wide dedicated visitors' body would go far in being able to actively engage the entire tourism infrastructure in crises such as this. As I close this out, the airport has been reopened, but at the same time the Internet is buzzing with pictures of stranded tourists and angry visitors vowing not to return. We've been damaged, but there remains the wonderful elements here that keep both visitors and residents calling this their place in the sun. It's nice to have the welcome mat out again, but certainly some work is left is cleaning up the debris from the weekends foray.

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