Willy Wonka's Tourist Factory
The Phuket Gazette.
This year's peak season has indeed been a blast from the not so distant past of, say 2006, when tourism numbers were on the rise and the world for the most part was indeed a sunny place. The looming dark angel of an impending financial implosion was only a figment of some madman's imagination.
While over the past 18 months tourism has walked through a Valley of Death of near biblical proportions, things turned around this peak season, nearly mimicking the rise of some hopeful singer from karaoke favorite to American Idol superstar. Fame and fortune (and if you're eccentric enough, perhaps even a reality television show) are the perks of a booming high season, but after a pensive moment you start to wonder just how long they can last.
The intersection of fame and hype is heavily laden with the onrushing traffic of the general public, with the outcome often being either a swerving high speed rush until you hit the accelerator in a celebration of survival, or, ending up as broken china doll in a head on collision.
The musings of the 'hurt squad' abound as I drive through the island, I can't help but marvel at the sheer number of tourists who have hit the payment of Paradise Incorporated. It's mad city: dodging speeding motorbike drivers with no shirts on, rocket-ship vans headed to James Bond Island, and entire families lingering with caution as they wait to cross streets, like dingo dogs held back by an invisible electric fence.
Phuket tourism is back, but both the faces and the places are changing. It's a bit like going to jail for some small-time drug offense and being temporarily cutoff from the outside world. After a short sentence, you're thrust back into the stark light of day of a hometown you almost don't recognize. Almost, that is; for the familiar small corners and street signs are still there.
Mass tourism has found Phuket like never before, with budget airlines increasing the number of travelers in the skies. Charter flights from frigid Euro-zones touchdown in Phuket with passengers emerging like cramped up pilgrims setting foot in the New World. Noah and his ark have nothing on this place; instead of two of every type and color, its two thousand of each and every one.
The question starting to creep into my cluttered subconscious – a distraction that just won't go away, like the fly that won't get out of your car – is: Will mass tourism create a monster that takes over the island, like a homegrown variety of the infamous Godzilla? Possible headlines are now pouring into my head: Godzilla vs. Phuket, or King Kong wreaks havoc on Patong, or even something with that creepy Chucky guy.
My conflicted mind remains unsettled. We now have the numbers, and they're indicating lower spending and a change of market driving forces. Driving through Kamala on the way home from the office, sprawling beer bars now litter the main roads as beckoning bar girls holler at their future soul mates; albeit if only for an hour or two, telling the passing tourists how much they love them.
Yes 'we love you too', Phuket, but the question gnawing at my gut for the moment, like some crazed weasel amped up on speed, or an overgrown sewer rat, is: Will the creation of a strictly numbers-based tourism market derail the formidable growth of upper end and luxury property, hence throwing us into the ranks of (dare I say) that dreaded P word (Pattaya)?
Numbers-based growth was the darling of Wall Street, and look where that got them. It's a vicious cycle, but Phuket is falling into it. Evidence can be seen as we start to see a considerable over build of new hotels. Room rates are shrinking in attempt to get larger hotels to compete on rates, shifting the focus to reducing costs in order to make profit. No upgrading or renovation happens.
At the end of the day, the local tourism industry could end up looking like a down on their luck, day-drinking tramp, with more than a few wrinkles around the edges, ready to carelessly throw away whatever is left. I'm going to have nightmares about that one.
In a nutshell, while we find ourselves in a situation similar to the backseat passengers in an epic though oddly dark Willy Wonka-style journey into the unknown, we need to think about where we want to go. Is it too late, or is this just a temporary dilemma, filling in the empty time as the greater world recovers and those bigger spending tourists flock back to our shores? Or have we made our bed, requiring us to now sleep in it?