Phuket Opinion: The Great Reset

PHUKET: Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha telling the world as he did on Friday (May 13) that Thailand is “open for business” and “ready to welcome back visitors ‒ whether they are business, leisure travellers, or those attending meetings or seeking medical care”, sounds fine, but such messages need to be delivered with measure of credibility. Spouting of numbers not supported by his own government’s agencies does not lend itself to people actually believing him.

Patong Beach on Friday (May 13). Photo: TAC Phuket

If 300,000 people did indeed visit Thailand in the first week of May after the Test & Go requirements were cancelled, as Mr Prayut claimed, only a fraction of those came to Phuket ‒ as attested to by the daily reports issued by Phuket Immigration at the airport.

LIkewise, reports quoting Nanthasiri Ronnasiri, Director of the Phuket office of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), saying that Phuket is expected to enjoy a B1.8-billion bump over this four day weekend, need to be taken with not a pinch of salt, but a whole dose.

Further, claims of Phuket enjoying more than 100 flights a day, according to the Phuket airport flight schedule for May issued by Airports of Thailand (AoT Phuket), that’s possible only if you add domestic and international flights together, and then include the number of flights departing the island ‒ unless of course the people operating the airport are unaware of flights coming and going.

As for Phuket now receiving on average more than 4,000 international tourists a day, that’s only possible if somehow they are bypassing Phuket Immigration. Phuket Immigration reported 3,542 international arrivals on Friday, by a long way the most Phuket has enjoyed on any one day since May 1. That figure includes all international arrivals, such as Thais and expats returning home, not just tourists.

Praise must go to the Phuket Info Center for publicly posting its daily reports of international arrival numbers that are much more easily believed to be accurate. The center, operated under the Phuket Governor’s office, aligns itself with the plain understanding that ignoring reality does not make the problem go away. Only by recognising that a problem still exists can appropriate measures be taken to address it. Kudos to them for keeping that line.

All of this is not to douse hopes of any recovery of Phuket’s battered tourism industry. There has been improvement, for which we are all grateful. What this does point out is that Bill Barnett, Managing Director of hospitality consultancy C9 Hotelworks, was absolutely right when he sent up a warning flare in March explaining that Phuket was “at the bottom of a cycle”. What that means is that the island’s tourism industry pretty much has to start over again.

Phuket Property

“While glossy tourism campaigns that focus on quality versus quantity are the new mantra across the country, reality bites hard on an island that went from hosting over 9 million passenger arrivals at Phuket International Airport in 2019 to just over 900,000 in 2021,” he added.

 “The sizable 90% decline, coupled with the fact there are already 1,786 registered tourism establishments and 92,604 hotel rooms in current supply mean empty beds that need tourists,” Mr Barnett said in a follow-up release. That was just under a month ago, and the number of arrivals has not changed significantly since then.

Of course there are many external factors contributing to Phuket’s inability so far to attract more tourists, not least of which are the current global economic situation and the fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But also as Mr Barnett pointed out, with nearly a blank slate Phuket tourism officials and operators in the industry have the opportunity to target specific markets, and more importantly get our own house in order.

We are now in a new era of competition, one that Phuket has not seen before. The opportunity to create a new Phuket stands right before us. Phuket is still a preferred destination among large source markets of tourists, and not just the Chinese and Russian mass markets that Phuket had become dependent on before the pandemic.

It will be a long road back. Now that we are into the “green season” and past the holiday periods for our previously usual visitors, tourist numbers from here on are expected to grow slowly, not skyrocket. But the time to rebrand, rebuild and promote is now. We have a second chance, and we will recover, but to transform into what rests in our hands. We only hope that the powers that be understand this. It seems the rest of the world already does.

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