PHUKET: With Phuket International Airport already choked and unable to expand beyond 2015, a speed-rail link to Krabi is being proposed to Thailand's Government as a potential solution to keep the tourists coming.
A new rail network would also open up the natural Andaman coast north of Phuket through Phang Nga to Ranong, the Vice President of the Phuket Tourism Association, Bhuritt Maswongsa, said today.
In the first public exposure of the idea, Khun Bhuritt told Phuketwan that the concept had been discussed extensively behind closed doors.
Phuket Governor Tri Augkaradacha will probably be invited to present the twin airport rail link concept to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra when her Cabinet meets on Phuket on March 18-20.
Forward planners have failed to provide Phuket with timely growth at its airport to keep pace with a surge in tourism traffic - an income stream that Thailand's government will want to keep flowing at full bore.
Phuket International Airport could even top 10 million passengers this calendar year. It's plain that on present trends and with no disasters, the expansion of the airport to 12.5 million passengers by mid-2015 will be too little, too late.
''The only real alternative,'' Khun Bhuritt said today, ''is to enlarge Krabi International Airport and link the two airports with a fast train.
''The rail link could also be extended up the coast through Phang Nga to Ranong. The government already owns the land for a route.''
Although there will be plenty of competing projects on the table when Prime Minister Yingluck comes to Phuket, the Phuket International Airport is Phuket's most important piece of infrastructure. But it has failed to grow with tourism.
The rail link concept could carry passengers from Phuket to Krabi or Krabi to Phuket in an hour or less at speeds of 180-200 kph, Khun Bhuritt said.
''The rail link doesn't need to be superfast because the distance is relatively short. The link could go right to the Phuket International Airport - if it's possible, that would be ideal.
''If not, it could go as far as the Sarasin Bridge, which leads onto Phuket.''
Tourists, of course, mostly want to go to Phuket's west coast destinations - Patong, Kamala, Karon, Kata and Surin - and the best way to do that would be directly, by bus.
The concept of carrying them by light rail to Phuket City, on the opposite side of Phuket to where they wish to go, makes little sense.
Passengers who wished to go on from Patong to Chalong and Rawai in southern Phuket should be carried over the Nakkerd Hills via the controversial and unbuilt road route.
Khun Bhuritt believes that a rail route north from Phuket through Phang Nga to the port of Ranong in Ranong province would be the most sensible way of opening up the Andaman coast to tourists without damaging the natural environment that tourists find attractive.
What would be needed, though, as Phuketwan has already pointed out, is a strategy for Phuket, Krabi and Phang Nga that restricts the speed of development in Phang Nga and Krabi.
That way, Phuket would continue its rapid growth into an island-city while its neighbors retained their beauty and appeal to tourists.
If the beaches and the reefs were given proper protection under a single authority at the same time, it would be a masterstroke strategy for Phuket regional tourism for the next 20 years.
Without that kind of thinking, left to rely on forward-planners who cannot even build big enough airports in time, and Phuket will slide downhill.
The Andaman region has a great future and Phuket's part in that future is as an urban island gateway with great beaches and access to delightful smaller islands and reefs.
In an indication that the entire Andaman coast is now being discovered, small pioneer carrier Happy Air is to extend its links between Ranong and Bangkok to four times a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.