Whose Beach is it Anyway?
A renewed media and politically charged battle of Phuket's beaches is playing out on the island's West Coast. With the Freedom Beach land title investigations on the Patong headland still fresh in the public's eye, the latest flash point is Laem Singh.
This lovely cove is high on the top places to visit for both tourists and locals alike. If you were to compose a 'best of album', no doubt pictures from this site would be an absolute must.
Recently the land owner which is reportedly affiliated to Bangkok Broadcasting and TV which owns Channel 7 started to erect a fence around the perimeter of the property.
Perhaps in a case of kismet, sheer coincidence or else motivated by the visit of Yingluck Shinawatra and her cabinet to appear, a group of 100 beach vendors visited the governor's office to protest about alleged land title irregularities.
Next came banners on the coastal road and a flurry of negative social media postings by both Thai's and foreigners over the controversy.
Getting to the heart of the problem is another matter so bear with me over the unpopular, but also important issue of control over access to the island's beaches and the effect it has on private land.
Talking to local property experts and sources at the land department, the land title at Laem Singh has long been established for decades and clearly not a land grab.
While a lease exists for a restaurant on the lower area, over the past few years there has continued to be considerable encroachment on public land be it a charge for public parking or a proliferation of beach vendors, sun loungers for sale and other commerce.
I've seen a number of postings by outraged expats over the past few weeks about what a 'disgrace' the erection of a fence on private land by the legal owner is and how the island is being destroyed.
What's ironic is that in an altered universe I'm not sure how many of these people would appreciate illegal vendor's coming up and setting up a paid parking space in the front yard of their home, on land they own? And while local's willingly shell out money to pay for parking and sun lounger's to illegal operators they are the same who complain about corruption, illegal tuk tuks, jet skis and the whole motley crew.
Of course it's not that simple, but it does point out an alarming issue for Phuket. Laem Singh remains a key asset of the island and one could imagine a handful of dynamic parcels of land being developed into world class hotels with brands such as Four Seasons, W, InterContinential and Conrad.
For those who have not been keeping up with the news, unfortunately all of these hotel brands are now on Koh Samui, as the landscape for business is simply easier for mega projects.
Laguna Phuket has continued to fight against illegal beach vendors for over two decades with little success as have countless other hotels, and simply put; this island's drive right into the mid section of mass tourism with nameless three star resorts will continue unless the government can intercede over encroachments and the large scale commercialism of the island's beaches.
I took the time to drive down the Laem Singh before writing this and it was hard to find a place to even sit down without bumping into a sun lounger for hire, much less being intimidated by parking fees for land which is public property.
Down the coast I continued and somehow I was reminded of Spain, Majorca or Marbella – a journey into concrete jungles which cater to a certain type of market, the one that arrives on charter aircraft and is only looking at their next holiday destination to where the lowest price offer is at the time.
Politics remains a volatile mix with the ruling Pheu Thai government looking to get a foothold in Phuket. With a large mainly democrat base of large property owners the recent spate of land title investigations for many have taken on the air of electioneering.
Unfortunately for Phuket the end result is that the island is becoming a less attractive destination for significant investors into largescale projects. For those who do own prime land which has a high market value there is little incentive to take on a high degree of risk in a market which remains erratically volatile.
Perhaps it's time to revisit the promotion of an special administrative zone such as exists in Bangkok and Pattaya to better manage the overflowing basket of critical issues being faced including land ownership rights and beach access issues.