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How Phuket Turns its Back . . . and Tourists Die

How Phuket Turns its Back . . . and Tourists Die

Sunday, August 30, 2009
Phuketwan Analysis/Comment: Photo Album Above

THE SEA takes, and the sea gives. A wounded turtle was rescued at Kata on Phuket today, just a kilometre or so from the spot at a neighboring beach where a Russian tourist drowned hours earlier.

The turtle, minus a flipper, has a chance at survival. The Russian tourist probably did not. He should never have been in the water.

Why did he take his chances at Karon, now known to be Phuket's most deadly beach?

That's the question requiring an answer in the wake of a growing number of needless drownings along Phuket's popular west coast.

The 32-year-old Russian tourist's body is still missing.

It will probably be returned to shore with the next tide at Karon.

This is the treacherous stretch of sand that the influential Lonely Planet publishers (and at least one local resort) have promoted this month as one of the world's top 10 beaches for families.

How can this be, when some local officials say as many as 10 tourists have died in the sea off Karon in the past eight weeks or so?

It's an ongoing tragedy built on marketing without responsibility and a lifeguard system that fails to adequately warn and protect tourists and locals alike.

More people - perhaps many more people - are likely to die before answers are found.

This monsoon season, for the first time, Phuket is being promoted as a ''Summer'' destination to attract people looking for inexpensive beach holidays.

But the truth is that Phuket's west coast beaches, despite what Lonely Planet claims about Karon, are not safe for families to swim, or for that matter for swimmers in general, on quite a high proportion of days.

Tourists who are not told of the dangers take the plunge. They are keen to enjoy their low-cost out-of-high-season holiday.

The visitors ignore the local warnings, which in some cases are in inappropriate places, or in the wrong language.

And some of them die. Needlessly, tragically, unnecessarily.

We saw the impulse at work on Karon beach this afternoon.

A group of swimmers entered the sea to frolic in the waves, ignoring the red flags at the water's edge and other signs.

And why not? They've paid for their beach holiday. They have faith in the people who conveyed the implicit message that Phuket in the monsoon season is safe to swim.

The truth is, it's not. The Russian vanished at this spot a few hours earlier.

A lifeguard blows his whistle. He shouts into the onshore breeze: ''Do you want to die? Please get out of the water!''

The swimmers have already ignored the red flags that are all along the shorefront, planted within touching distance of the water's edge.

They pretend they can't hear the lifeguard. They play on.

Eventually, with the lifeguard growing more agitated, the swimmers leave the water. They are not happy. What's the problem?

The lifeguard is left to communicate something that should have been made plain when these people booked their tickets, and reinforced when they checked in at their resorts.

Phuket is a great place, all year long.

But if swimmers ignore the risks and the warnings and dive in at some of the popular west coast beaches on the wrong day, when the rip currents are running, they will probably die.

Many swimmers have already perished this monsoon season.

There are sad families all around Thailand and the world who are still in mourning.

The body of the Russian is still missing, and more are likely to follow.

It's time something was done. It's time the community, including the resorts, took responsibility.

Do something, please. Today, not tomorrow.

Here's the advice of Australian water safety expert David Field:

I have been involved in the training of lifeguards in Phuket since 2001. Although I train lifeguards employed in the hotel industry I have had opportunity to train beachguards over my time in Phuket and have had ample opportunity to look closely at beach management practices on Phuket's beaches.

I would make the following recommendations to reduce drownings immediately in Phuket during the low or summer season.

1. Implement beach management practices where trained lifeguards identify safe areas on beaches for swimming. ie areas free from rips and undercurrents and mark these areas with appropriate identification for beach users.

Currently, beachguards fly red flags continuously during the low /summer season on all beaches. Why? People travel to Phuket to enjoy the warm waters of the Andaman Sea and they could do so safely if beachguards were properly trained to provide safe swimming areas on beaches

2. Train beachguards to professional standards to recognise hazards in the aquatic environment; prevent beach-users from getting into trouble by actively supervising at the water's edge; having the fitness and skills necessary to effect a rescue efficiently and if necessary apply first class resuscitation skills to improve a patient's chance of survival.

Sadly, these four accepted principles of ocean lifeguarding; that of prevention, recognition, rescue and resuscitation are lacking from Phuket beachguards and their overall lack of professionalism is why they are regarded by many locals in Phuket as something of a joke. Presently they are beachguards and have not earned the title ''lifeguard''.

Phuket currently has a group of lifeguards trained to Australian Professional Ocean Lifeguard standards. These guards formed The Phuket Lifeguard Club in 2003 and voluntarily train Thai people in surf awareness and resuscitation skills. It is this group that is behind the children's water safety days held around Phuket since 2008 and the staging of Surf Carnivals at Loma Park.

The expertise to effectively manage the bathing public can be seen daily at Relax Bay aka Karon Noi where Le Meridien employed lifeguards run a safe, open beach on days when all other public beaches are closed with red flags. When the Le Meridien lifeguards close the beach it is only after a careful assessment of risk as per their training and standard operating procedures.

I am saying that the necessary expertise already exists in Phuket to manage beaches safely but what needs to happen is for the authorities to request this expertise to provide a satisfactory lifeguard service for Phuket's public beaches. The cost of drowning deaths to foreigners and Thais alike far outweighs the cost of implementing such an initiative.

As a quick example, the current chaos of Patong could be improved greatly with the provision of, say, three safe swimming areas identified daily by trained lifeguards. Swimmers would be managed into these safe swimming areas by the lifeguards who would intervene when people entered the water outside the designated safe areas.

Jet skis, board riders and parasailing would have designated areas separated from the swimming areas. When surf conditions were considered too dangerous by the chief lifeguard, the red flags would go up and the beach would be closed until conditions improved, with a change in tide or wind or waves.

Clearly identifiable swimming areas with clearly identifiable lifeguards would promote a culture of respect and safety. 100 years of surf lifesaving in Australia has taught hard lessons about the need for professional, highly trained personnel managing beaches for the benefit of the public.

The experience of those 100 years already exists in members of the Phuket Lifeguard Club trained to the Australian standard - please make use of it.

Phuket's Catalogue of Needless Deaths by Drowning

Dane Drowns at Karon: Call for Safety in the Sea
Latest Latest drowning victim on Phuket is a Danish man who died on Sunday at Karon, scene of a succession of drownings this ''Summer.'' An Australian expert offers answers.
Dane Drowns at Karon: Call for Safety in the Sea

Phuket Drownings Rile Fans of World's No.4 Beach
Latest Karon rates No. 4 on a world list of ''Top 10 Beach Holidays for Families'' but it's also right up there when it comes to drownings, too. A critic lashes Phuket's lifeguard system.
Phuket Drownings Rile Fans of World's No.4 Beach

Italian Tourist Drowns at Patong: Beach Closure Call
Drowning Toll Rises Another tourist has drowned at Patong, latest victim an Italian who was having a final swim with friends before flying to Samui today. Should beaches be closed?
Italian Tourist Drowns at Patong: Beach Closure Call

Phuket Drownings: Which Beach is the Safest?
Latest Lifeguards and an accelerated training program are just part of what Phuket needs to make its beaches safe during the monsoon summer season especially.
Phuket Drownings: Which Beach is the Safest?

Phuket Drownings: Two Tourists Die After Rescues
More Deaths Two tourists on Phuket have died after being rescued from the sea in separate incidents at Patong and Karon. The deaths add to mounting concern about Summer season safety.
Phuket Drownings: Two Tourists Die After Rescues

How to Stop Beach Drownings on Phuket
Latest The arrival of lifeguards and improved rescue equipment need to be supplemented by proper warnings for those who swim on Phuket during 'Summer'.
How to Stop Beach Drownings on Phuket

Phuket Surfer Riding High at Surin: Photo Special
Photo Special Phuket beaches grow more turbulent in Summer but at one of them, Surin, an American surfer is offering a commonsense recipe for survival and fun in the sea.
Phuket Surfer Riding High at Surin: Photo Special

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Horizon Karon Beach Resort & Spa

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