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GRAY AREA from the Phuket Gazette


Damage done: Years of careful planning destroyed in one morning due to thoughtlessness.

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 sound.

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 unnoticed.

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" north.

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 warming.

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 sense prevails.

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."

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