Pearl loses its luster
Sunnier days: Tourists sunbathe on Nai Han Beach.
Phuket, like any attraction, relies on having a positive image with potential visitors. However, such an image is always prone to being tainted by high-profile crimes as well as a perceived lack of security.
Recent news of crime on the island has jeopardized the reputation of the ‘Pearl of the Andaman’. And they have come at the worst possible time, as the island province has been positioned as a key driver of the revival of the country’s tourism sector, which has been battered by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Provincial authorities have taken stock of such incidents and are acting swiftly to address them to control the impact on Phuket’s tourism, which is pioneering the restart of the entire industry in the country.
“We have to maintain an inviting image. We have tried to avoid any setback to our reputation. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don’t,” said Pichet Panapong, Phuket’s lieutenant governor.
Since the middle of last month, negative headlines have grabbed headlines ranging from overpriced taxi fares to the €5,000 (around 200,000 baht) theft against a family of Greek tourists and a call center scam that victimized a Swiss man for the 57,000 baht has lost.
But Phuket’s image as a safe haven for tourists was hit even harder two weeks ago when an Indian gangster, Jimi Singh Sandhu, also known as Mandeep Singh, was shot dead outside his Rawai Beach villa on February 4 and was discovered the following morning.
Phuket’s episode of bad press began on August 3 last year with the assassination of Nicole Sauvain-Weisskopf, 57, a deputy chief of protocol at the Swiss Federal Assembly.
Teerawat Thothip, 27, was arrested four days later after police found Whitehead’s half-naked body at Ton Ao Yon Waterfall two days earlier.
Police said the suspect admitted to sexually assaulting the woman after seeing her alone at the waterfall. However, she resisted, so he drowned her and then covered her with plastic wrap before stealing 300 baht from her.
The Weisskopf murder came just over a month after Phuket reopened under the Sandbox tourism program on July 1.
The incident hit a sore point for state agencies and frontline tourism companies, which had seen a modest but sustained tourism recovery after reopening.
Authorities’ concerns grew after criminal cases multiplied, although police were working flat out to solve them.
The cases have severely damaged tourists’ confidence, leading senior police officers to fly to Phuket to conduct their own investigations into the investigation. The Sandhu case prompted national police chief Suwat Jangyodsuk to visit the province to follow up the investigation.
Police said they have identified the suspects and issued arrest warrants for them.
Phuket has paved the way for becoming the first province to “experiment” with reopening tourism.
From July 1 last year to February 10, 299,305 tourists visited the province, including those who had checked into the country through the Test & Go program, which offers an easy alternative to quarantine for fully vaccinated visitors.
Tourist arrivals in Phuket are expected to increase in the coming months.
At the same time, the Warner Brothers production of Deep Blue is relocating from The Meg 2: The Trench Movie from Krabi to Phuket. Shooting will take place from April 1st to May 15th.
Earlier last week, the filmmakers met with Mr. Pichet to discuss the production, which is expected to be shot at Tambon Patong.
Mr Pichet acknowledged that crime is one of the biggest problems in the tourism industry. But the quicker suspects are caught, the quicker the damage to Phuket’s tourism reputation can be contained.
Phuket Governor Narong Woonciew said officials took care of many issues. For example, the question of taxis was settled by officials of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Land Transport Offices with the help of private transport companies.
As for the Greek tourist family’s theft case, some residents have rallied to their aid and donated money to the victims, showing the hosts’ compassion for their guests.
Excessive taxi fares have long been a problem for tourism in Phuket. Despite authorities’ best efforts to eradicate it, tourists continue to file complaints.
The issue has at times reached a boiling point with fights between customers and taxi drivers, Tuktuk or motorcycle taxis.
Customers say the rates charged by drivers are arbitrary and unfair. The issue was raised by foreign diplomats who met the provincial governor.
On January 28, a wealthy Thai tourist said he had been charged a 600-baht taxi fare for a 20-minute ride from Kamala Beach to Patong Beach.
The Land Transport Bureau later fined the taxi driver 2,000 baht. The driver also received errors and was sent for retraining.
In July 2019, two Australian tourists filed a complaint against the driver of a public delivery van who charged them 3,000 baht for a 50km, congestion-free trip from the airport to their hotel.
Jaturong Kaewkasi, chief of Phuket Land Transport Bureau, said that Bangkok Post that tariffs would be standardized across the province and that tariffs could be downloaded from the bureau’s website. Customers can still call the office’s hotline on 1584 24 hours a day.
“We listened to all sides before coming to standard prices suitable for travel within Phuket. Prices may differ from other provinces,” he said.
The so-called Hello Phuket Service App has been approved for use by the Department of Land Transport. It will also introduce more metered taxis and offer fares that both customers and drivers can agree on.
A source at a privately owned transport company suggested that all public transport in Phuket would be allowed to pick up customers at the airport to create competition. It would also counter unscrupulous practices in the transport sector.
Taxis must be banned from charging additional fees for picking up customers at the airport.
Mr Pichet said using an application to call taxis and see an estimated fare will make getting around fairer and cheaper.
Kongsak Khoopongsakorn, chairman of the Thailand Hotel Association, Southern Chapter, has expressed concern at the province’s overall picture. Stories of the taxi fare fiasco and local killings have played out on social media.
He said the expensive taxi rides were difficult to manage. Drivers who pick up customers at the airport argue that they have to charge double the fare because they are only allowed to drop off customers at the airport when coming from the city and are not allowed to pick up new ones from there.
He said some websites have sensational stories about Phuket transportation to create hype. Some even fabricate incidents to try to drive a wedge between Phuket taxi drivers and tourists.
Mr Kongsak said the killings, which took place in Phuket, stemmed from personal conflicts. If they are inflated disproportionately to conjure up a false image of Phuket as an unsafe tourism destination, the province and its tourism industry will suffer.
“I urge the government to take a tough stance. Illegal weapons must be eradicated and suspects brought to justice in a timely manner.
“Everyone has their part to play in being a good host,” he said.
Mr Kongsak said tourist arrivals in the province have stabilized since February 1, with 2,000 to 3,000 tourists entering Phuket daily. Hotel occupancy is hovering between 30% and 40%, although that number is set to drop next week.
“But we still see a silver lining in Thai tourists,” he said, adding that domestic tourists are expected to take advantage of Phase 4 Rao Tiew Duay Kan (We Travel Together) Co-Payment Scheme and get on your way to Phuket.
A single master plan
Sonthaya Kongthip, chairman of Baan Bangtao-Cherngtalay Tourism Community Enterprise, said Phuket must follow a common master plan at the local level so that all stakeholders are aware of the strengths and weaknesses of local tourism.
The master plan must emphasize fairness in the tourism business, ensure that tourists are treated fairly and ensure that tourism revenues are distributed more evenly.
“We have to put ourselves in the shoes of our visitors. That’s part of the charm of Phuket,” he said.
Mr Sonthaya said a consultative approach might work best to iron out difficult issues. For example, tourists should be asked what public transport fares they are willing to pay before the fares are set, bearing in mind the province’s mountainous geography, which is a factor in fuel economy.
Regarding taxi prices, he suggested holding a forum where public transport drivers can fully express their views.
Meanwhile, Pheu Thai MP for Bangkok, Anudit Nakhonthap, urged the government to quickly improve Phuket’s image and avoid further negative impact on tourism revival.
One way to address the problem is to recruit more tourist police officers, as there are only 1,800 across the country, he said.