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Phuket Must End Its Race to Destruction: Opinion

Thursday, July 15, 2010
Phuketwan OPINION

KNOWING when to stop was always going to be Phuket's problem. Like obese children gorging on fast food, property developers have made a meal of every potential square metre of the island's best land.

Now Phuket Governor Wichai Praisa-ngob says it's time for an ''amnesty.'' Use of that word is especially appropriate, given the constant, continuing battle between nature and greed.

Bear in mind, though, that resort owners and managers cannot be blamed for the 20 years of carnage that have turned the island from a tropical paradise into a suburb with nice beaches. Indeed, some of the resorts on and around Phuket are fantastic places to stay, and they remain relatively at balance with their surroundings.

But put them all together, add expat and Thai property developers, throw in any number of bar owners, dive shop proprietors and tour operators seeking a piece of the action, and you have a recipe for a large, sprawling conurbation to replace a string of pretty villages.

It's true that any move now to stem the damage and preserve as much of the old, natural Phuket for as long as possible will be unfair to some propertyholders.

The alternative, though, is far worse. To let Phuket continue to be developed without controls would be unfair to future generations who deserve the chance to enjoy the superb beaches and the beauty of the coral reefs.

In some places, it probably still is the practice of local authorities to value the earth on which there is a building as ''improved'' land. And every architect we have met believes that the resort he has just designed for an environmentally-sensitive headland will be an adornment to the landscape.

Yet it was never so, and it never will be the case. Replacing a tinmine wasteland with a lagoon resort playground may help, but even that kind of worthwhile ''improvement'' does not restore the mangroves to their original shape.

Muslim islanders around Phuket have seen what has been allowed to happen and have turned their backs on resort developments. It's certainly true that greed may get to some of them eventually, although it will be slower to happen.

Mostly, these communities have seen the scarring and the lack of respect often accorded to them and their surroundings. They do not want more resorts. They want continuity, not cash.

The same thought has occurred to communities in Phang Nga and Krabi: they have seen Phuket and it is definitely not their idea of paradise. Their ''no-thanks'' attitude to jetskis and to beach loungers and tuk-tuks mirrors their broader, equally principled approach to the land itself.

Sadly, it's too late for Phuket. The island's rampant development will inevitably bring increasing damage and potentially complete destruction to what once was a wonderful natural asset.

What we'd like to see is a moratorium, an ''amnesty,'' for the three provinces, Phuket, Phang Nga and Krabi, because their futures are inextricably linked. Make it harder to open resorts in Krabi and Phang Nga, and try to slow the rate of development on Phuket.

Run a second line north and south along the entire Andaman coast, from the border with Burma to the border with Malaysia. Control future development here, too.

Preserve the 80-metre height limit and force Phuket developers to improve the quality of existing accommodation, so the cycle is towards a true five-star island. Keep Phang Nga, Krabi and the offshore islands low-development: make them a pair of lungs to match Phuket's urban hub of a heart.

Go ahead with the bid for World Expo 2020 in Greater Phuket, but put the balance between nature and commerce in place first. Instead of being allowed to overdevelop to self-destruction, Phuket, obese and still feeding as though there is no tomorrow, needs to be put on a diet.

At present, there are no rules. Phuket will be completely developed one day, and then overdeveloped the next. There is nobody to say: ''Stop!''

The Governor, to his credit, is trying to say: ''Whoa. The cliff is looming. Maybe we should change direction, my dear speeding out-of-control horses.''

It's not such a bad idea.

There is one certain limitation on future growth, and that is the ultimate size of Phuket airport. But there is no relationship between the maximum number of tourists that the airport can deliver from 2012-15, and the potential onward and upward growth of resort accommodation. Chaos, here we come.

Any sane measure would also have to control villas and condos, because at present some of these properties fall into the category of undeclared tourist accommodation.

We advocate a fast rail service from Bangkok to Phuket as a means of ensuring Phuket's capacity to continue to grow as a regional hub, beyond the limits of the airport expansion. But at the same time, rigid rules governing growth in the Andaman are needed to provide that much-needed balance between nature and commerce.

Get it wrong now, and there can be no turning back. The cliff is not that far away.
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Comments

Comments have been disabled for this article.

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While I am firmly in the camp that think Phuket's future will not be as attractive as its past, I tend to think that "communities in Phang Nga and Krabi: they have seen Phuket and it is definitely not their idea of paradise" isn't what you hear on the ground. Recently in Krabi speaking with biz owners and they wished for some of Phukets 'success', Phukets land values, Phukets revenues.

Whether we like it or not, Thailand's populations want the chance to make money, and with that money comes the people who bring it. 'Quality tourism' brings fewer people, spending more money, but mostly within their enclosed 5* experience, which pays its staff minimum wage and the profits go to the prominent families and owners not the local community itself. Between cash or corals, they will choose cash !!

Posted by LivinLOS on July 15, 2010 11:19

Editor Comment:

I am not sure who is ''we'' here. Please speak for yourself. You have talked to business people, who want their share of the cash. As well as recognising local commercial interests, Phuketwan has also spoken to people in the villages. Mostly they would be more content to continue to lead the same kind of lives as their forefathers, with the same kind of ambience around them. Promises of ''jobs for locals'' and ''we'll protect the environment'' have often proven to be false, although there are exceptions. That's what's different now - the locals recognise there is no possibility of balance, only profit v nature. You conclude that greed will win out, but then eventually, everybody loses: the investors, and the communities. The investors move on. The communities have to live with their mistakes. They are beginning to reject that notion.

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Sanibel Captiva island off Florida is a great model to follow but it may be to late to save Phuket. They acted fast there, after the start of their building boom.

Posted by mike on July 15, 2010 11:56

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Two thumbs up for the Governor. He has it in 'one'. It is not too late to strike a necessary balance.

Posted by Anonymous on July 15, 2010 17:19

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About 35 years ago I had a conversation with the president of IBM for South East Asia said to me," Phuket is one of the seven wonders of the world but . . . " !!!

I sad but what ? He said they will destroy it by over development !!!!

Posted by Brian on July 15, 2010 23:09

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Whoa.....what's that suppose to mean....
If the Governor really wanted to preserve Phuket from going down the drain he was in Bangkok now and not France, negotiating with the Government for a law prohibiting any more construction and stop his own asphalt syndrome on Phuket island

Posted by Karl on July 17, 2010 08:03

Editor Comment:

The Governor is a practical administrator whose job is to strike a balance that keeps the island's infrastructure moving to catch up with growth patterns. He will tell you that the island is already over-developed. He has probably told the PM the same thing. Trips overseas give Thai administrators the opportunity to see for themselves what works and what doesn't. Don't expect an instant answer to an issue that has been ignored for 20 years. Your ''stop his own asphalt syndrome'' criticism is unfair. Look at the problems and the potential solutions a bit more deeply, please.

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''Unfair''
Make ups here and there and more roads leading to more half finished construction sites hardly help to reduce overdevelopment, but merely prepare for more of it.

''Look at the problem deeper''
Well I don't think I shall start to analyse every problem which have brought overdevelopment to Phuket. The list will be endless, but a key word could maybe be regulations and enforcement of existing laws plus new laws regarding construction and tax on property.
Whatever problem a society have nothing will ever change unless they who are set to administrate the society take some unpopular decisions.
No change is made without inconvenience.

Posted by Karl on July 17, 2010 14:05

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Comparing Phuket to Captiva is absurd. That island is within a country where authorities adhere to laws, not just using them for cash extortion.

Posted by Ripley on July 19, 2010 14:09

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Capitiva island population less then 50. Phuket arguably 500,000...apples to oranges. Best to get reality check of if the entire world was same as 35 years ago, same ole same ole world around. Maybe join Michael J In Neverland.

Phuket still has some magic for us oldtimers.

Posted by robinino on July 19, 2010 15:58

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The article presents good ideas. However, it's tone, it's lack of organisation and its affirmative (and inaccurate) discrimination against Muslims makes it difficult, and at times nauseating, to read.

The fact is that at present, Phuket is reliant upon the dollar-a-day mentality of tourism, medical or leisure. What is needed is diversification. Bringing in long term revenue through taxation, rather than through alcohol sales, temporary accommodation and the rental of beach chairs, is the only way of really improving the long-term prospects for Phuket, not just for the environment, but for human development.

Technology might be one avenue. Pharmaceuticals could be another, financial services yet another; the government must surely be aware that by declaring Phuket a special administrative region, and allowing financial services to take root, Phuket could generate enough revenue to eclipse the national budget. The expertise bank among retirees and Phuket lovers is a gold mine for making almost any project happen.

Posted by Jay Renaud on July 20, 2010 04:16

Editor Comment:

If you love gold mines so much, perhaps South Africa is where you need to be putting these theories.
I think you mean ''affirmative discrimination IN FAVOR of Muslims makes it difficult, and at times nauseating, to read.'' How noble of you to struggle on through.
Diversification will not preserve the balance between man and nature: a strategic approach is required to save all Andaman provinces, not just Phuket. What's needed is just one retiree with talent, a green Lee Kwan Yew.

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I love what you wrote! I am happy to support the islanders' nature preserving eco-tour projects with home-stay and real culture etc.

Too many resort and condo projects are in deep trouble or stopped already. Save the best spots, do not build ghost neighborhoods there.

Posted by H??kan Ekholm on July 22, 2010 11:53


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