ARTICLES, SPEECHES AND OTHER READING
GRAY AREA from the Phuket Gazette
KEEP TOURISM ON TRACK , March 2007
Damage done: Years of careful planning destroyed in one morning due to
I just reviewed a Thai university paper on how disasters
and pandemics influence the travel decisions of tourists. The study was
spawned after the great "fear of the unknown" SARS epidemic in the hope of
understanding how to maintain markets in the aftermath of pandemics,
disasters or terrorist acts.
The survey results were unexpected. Tourists might avoid a particular
destination until epidemics or terrorist acts pass, but people still travel,
returning to a destination once they feel safe. Worldwide opinion shows
common sense - bird flu and terrorism are just as likely to occur back home
as in the areas we visit, so let's go on vacation.
Results showed that on a scale of four, disasters, pandemics and terrorism
all come in at under 1.8.
The three highest factors impacting tourism selections - all well up the
scale between 3.8 and 3.5 - were the real surprise.
Third on the list was "cheating while shopping". Not a problem for honest
Phuket, since no Phuket merchant, agent or tuk-tuk driver ever "cheats"
tourists. Perhaps Phuket can rely on our inherently strong ethics to keep
tourists coming back.
Second was "a bad experience on vacation." Phuket does pretty good here.
Considering Phuket's arrival numbers and "energetic" night life, our violent
crime rate is respectable - especially when compared to other destinations.
Then again, there are "bad activities" experiences. We hear them all on our
boat. Last year's favorite was the school kids still upset with their
speedboat lunch - not included. The 8-year-old shouted, "They told us lunch
was included, then tried to sell us jelly sandwiches made with white bread -
for 600 baht a sandwich. I told them to eat mine . . . What a rip-off!" Then
came the usual complaints about the congestion at a famous movie site and
another stop to feed the monkeys. These days, even kids know it's not cool
to feed wildlife.
That trip was criminal, but it wasn't a crime. Even so, that affluent Brit
family won't be coming back to Phuket - but they will discuss their rip-off
trip around the office water cooler for months to come. That's sad. Plenty
of good people worked hard over the years to build Phuket into a respectable
world-class destination. It only takes a few greedy boneheads to tarnish
Phuket's good name.
What was the big surprise for the "disasters" poll, coming in at #1 with a
3.83 out of 4? The tourist attitude that's death to a vacation spot is . .
."Overcrowded and polluted destinations."
Phuket is overcrowded from Patong south, but most people in Patong and the
beaches to the south want to be there; and it's a good thing to have a
designated "hot spot" that doesn't spill over to quiet areas. Up north,
because of our island's sheer size, there is still room for reasonable
growth. The same cannot be said for other nearby "satellite" destinations.
I recently had a too-close-to-home encounter with some of the destruction of
the natural environment being wrought on the island. When I left home in the
morning, our house was hidden in jungle - exactly as we like it. When I
returned in the early afternoon, it looked like a battlefield.
Without warning, our jungle was gone, chopped to ground level by fans of the
Texas Chainsaw Massacre who invaded our private property without even
asking. Five years in the making, our garden of elephant ears, tropical
flowers, and sapling trees looked like a medieval battlefield. My
80-year-old mother in law, too frail to stop the carnage, was in shock after
witnessing the disaster from start to finish.
She was agitated and speaking like a machine gun. I managed to pick out the
words fai (electricity) and tam ngan (work). I ran back along the soi. Sure
enough, another fifty meters further down, a crew of electricity workers in
a huge truck were clipping vegetation away from the electric wires.
That trimming was justified. Large trees limbs were leaning on electric
wires several meters above ground. Thanks for keeping those wires safe and
But our shrubbery was meters from the wires pumping electricity from the soi
into our house. Even the most vigorous specimens were well below the wires.
Not brain dead, we planted low-lying vegetation on a slope where they would
never reach the electric wires. It's called planning.
Elephant ears never grow to tree-top level, but their soft trunks are easy
to slash with a machete - so the crew had the equivalent of a shark feeding
frenzy. The photo tells the story.
It was a personal tragedy, but nothing worthy of wasting ink were it not for
the symbolism of greater things - like the entire island.
Phuket and the surrounding provinces are a boom town with a gold rush
mentality. We came back strong after the tsunami, too busy counting our
money to remember that our natural beauty is why tourists leave their
treasure with us. In many ways, we've gone too far, and it isn't going
Tourism Authority of Thailand arrival count numbers may stay strong thanks
to Eastern-European and East-Asian mass tourism, but the demographics will
change despite the new high-end hotels - almost all in the still "natural"
It seems like a natural progression, but detrimental in many ways. Most
legitimate planners recognize that "high quality, low volume" is better
economics than regressing into a "high volume, low quality" destination.
It's called "sustainability", a favorite buzzword in the era of global
Over the last three decades, business departments at several
internationally-known universities have developed their own versions of a
destination life-cycle. They are all similar. Level One is a backpacker
renting a beachside sala from the local fishermen. Things are all uphill
until about Level Eight, where the curve drops like a ski-jump. All the
business models say it's almost impossible to turn back the clock, returning
uphill from a Ten back to an Eight.
Tourists themselves are telling us we've gone too far already. Return to the
peak, stay on top while you can, they say.
As I write this column, the Gazette's headline story covers the clash of
cultures on Koh Yao Yai as developments begin impacting an area that common
sense says should be "green space."
It's sad to see, especially since only three months ago, this column
predicted this scenario. We fear things will only get worse until common
Economics is certainly important, but only one factor in quality of life. I
once visited a remote village about to become a lake for an unnecessary dam.
The plan was to relocate the villagers to the capital, where they could live
in public housing and work in factories, finally joining the world economy.
The planners with PhDs and MBAs praised the gifts and opportunities they
were forcing on the villagers, but the villagers were simple and direct, "If
we want to join the world economy, we can move to the big city anytime we
want. But we don't want to work in a factory so we can shop in a
supermarket. We stay in the village because this is the lifestyle we want."