PHUKET: The declaration by Phuket Vice Governor Amnuay Rodkwan Yodrabham on Friday (Sept 9) that Phuket taxi drivers “must do better” has to be a contender for understatement of the year.
Vice Governor Amnuay delivered his message at a meeting of taxi drivers to “rehearse” the rules and regulations governing taxi drivers, their behaviour and operations.
That meeting was held in response to four tourists arriving from Phi Phi Island being forced to exit a taxi van they had ordered by the Bolt app. The tourists were forced to take a “Ratsada VIP” taxi operating at the pier under a concession – an act that saw the taxi group branded as “mafia” in a slew of comments posted online.
If the taxi drivers haven’t noticed, the Ratsada Pier incident happened only because the tourists, young women from Israel, were already aware of booking a taxi by a phone app, and thus bypassing the “organised” drivers and their paid-for exclusive rights to passengers at specific locales through a “concession”.
Even Pol Col Pichetpong Jangklaikom, Chief of the Tourist Police Region 3 branch, based in Phuket, after conducting a very quick investigation of the incident warned, “We must be careful because of the use of social media. If there is an incident, there will be an effect.”
That message obviously didn’t get through to Adcha Buachan, Chief of the Phuket Land Transport Office (PLTO), whose first public response to the incident was to threaten people using private cars as taxis with the full extent of the law.
Dumbfoundingly, Mr Adcha seemed to not have understood that his warning would also make its way across social media, only entrenching people’s understanding of exactly how Phuket’s taxi groups operate and who protects their interests.
The warning had absolutely no relevance to the Ratsada Pier incident. The van the Israeli tourists had ordered was confirmed by police and the PLTO itself to be fully legally registered as a commercial passenger vehicle complete with “yellow and black” licence plates.
Ironically, it has been the taxi driver directly involved in the Ratsada Pier incident, Ekachai Decha, who has so far painted a very clear picture of the taxi cartels stranglehold on access to tourists in Phuket.
In Mr Ekachai’s denial that the Ratsada Pier drivers were “mafia”, he plainly said, “Why don’t you call the taxi drivers at the airport ‘mafia’? It is a B2,000 fine for any taxi driver not belonging to that group being caught there.” Yes, Mr Ekachai, most people do; and yes, not all cartels in Phuket are the same and most do not work in alliance with each other.
Phuket Mai Khao Sakhu Co Ltd (PMK) and Phuket Limousine and Business Services Cooperative (PBC) are the two companies that have rights to operate taxis at Phuket International Airport under a concession with Airports of Thailand (AoT).
With AoT defined this week as a state enterprise, despite shares being traded on the stock exchange, that makes the taxi concession at Phuket airport a state-enforced monopoly. Period. As such, senior Land Transport officials will even fly down from Bangkok to protect the taxi drivers’ interests. After all, why pay if there is no protection?
That model has been replicated all across the island. As Col Pichetpong confirmed with the “Ratsada VIP” concession, “The concession is fully legal and allowed under the regulations of the Land Transport Office.” That means all such taxi concessions in Phuket are fully legal, state-enforced micro-monopolies.
What the money grabbers and taxi cartels have yet to understand is that while they are burying their heads in the sand, everyday people are making the decision for them, turning to apps such as Grab and Bolt to hire taxis, with Phuket taxi cartels losing their turf war. Everyday people are finally achieving what Phuket’s metered taxis have never been able to do.
However, Phuket airport remains a bastion of taxi concession power on the island, where tourists arriving have no choice but walk to the main road outside to be picked up by Bolt or Grab drivers. Bolt and Grab are allowed at Suvarnabhumi airport. There is no reason why Phuket airport should be any different.