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Sunday's greeting at Phuket airport did not amuse everyone

Phuket Airport Immigration Chief Shown the Exit

Tuesday, November 24, 2009
THE IMMIGRATION Chief at Phuket International Airport has been hastily transferred to Bangkok while an investigation is held into a tourism welcome that went wrong.

As an inaugural flight arrived from Brisbane, Australia, on Sunday afternoon, Colonel Pongtorn Patchimsawat confronted the welcoming media, officials, dancers and drummers and demanded to know what they were doing.

At one stage, he threatened to have them all arrested. One journalist offered both wrists to the colonel, ready for handcuffs.

Among the welcoming party were the new director of the TAT on Phuket, Bangornrat Shinaprayoon, Methee Tanmanatragul, President of the Southern Chapter of the Thai Hotels Association, and the AoT airport director, Prathuang Somkhom.

Today, Colonel Pongtorn Patchimsawat was no longer based at the airport. His transfer papers arrived early this morning. An investigation is being held into the affair, with a report expected within 30 days.

Whatever the outcome, Colonel Pongtorn is unlikely to be re-posted to Phuket.

The colonel may have been within his rights to question the gathering on the grounds of security, but his actions showed a lack of tact on an island where tourism is the reason why he is there.

Traditional Thai greetings with garlands, dancing and music are standard procedure at the airport, with security guards issuing passes to welcomers.

The greetings always take place on the incoming side of the Immigration counters so the passengers from the ''first flight'' can be properly welcomed, rather than all incoming passengers on the other side of the counter.

On Monday at a special meeting with the Governor of Phuket, Wichai Praisa-ngob, officials and media representatives expressed indignation at the incident.

Dr Sawit Pongwat, of Rajabhat University, told the governor that his students, who performed the dances and played the drums, had been welcoming special visitors to Phuket for 20 years.

''This is the first time we've had this kind of problem,'' he said.

The TAT's Khun Bangornrat said that more special flights would be coming soon, so there was a need to clarify what welcoming groups could and couldn't do.

Sunday's airport incident was widely covered nationwide by Thai television, and so was Monday's meeting.

Earlier this year, in a notorious incident, British tourist Simon Burrowes was arrested after swearing as he tried to catch his departing flight home.

Amid the bad publicity that followed, Immigration officials at the airport went to great lengths to illustrate that they understood the need for the image of Phuket as a tourist-friendly destination to be maintained.
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Comments

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If nothing went wrong, as claimed by NBT TV Phuket in their spirited response to the original story (We were there as part of media. We did not see you there), I guess the good Colonel has been moved to a post at TAT where his PR skills, diplomacy and judgment can be put to better use.

Posted by John L on November 24, 2009 16:37

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Whilst the immigration chief may not have been tactful in his actions, my understanding of the reported situation is that he was 100% correct to challenge those people who were 'airside' without having been individually checked by airport security and issued appropriate passes.

Dr Pongwat states that his students have been welcoming visitors airside for 20 years. Does that mean that this type of security risk has existed all that time?

By all means let's welcome arriving tourists with a traditional Thai dance. But keep their safety in mind also. Keep airside strictly for arriving passengers and security-cleared airport staff. All others should perform their duties outside of the security area.

Posted by Simon Luttrell on November 24, 2009 18:47

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Simon, Your concern is understandable because security is an important consideration. The welcomers at Phuket airport go through the same scanning process as all airport passengers and visitors.

They then have to be checked off a list with security guards, who escort them past the Immigration counter to a confined space fronting the doors through which international passengers first emerge. It's hard to see how security could be a problem, although the dancing and drumming may divert the attention of officers at the Immigration counter for, oh, five minutes, maybe.

Immigration officials need to be scrupulous in checking incoming tourists, but they also need to join in the welcoming process, too. A balance is required. Smiles wouldn't hurt occasionally.

Posted by Angelfire on November 25, 2009 07:44

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In response to Angelfire's reassuring comments, I can categorically state that welcomers at Phuket Airport are not subject to the same scanning process as all airport passengers and visitors.

On at least two occasions since 2007 in my role as a volunteer officer with the Thai Tourist Police, (stationed at the airport), I have been taken 'airside' without any security checks. The press and camera crews who were present also went airside without any checks.

As an expat and a police volunteer, I am in a difficult position when it comes to raising concerns over airport security. But the practice of taking 'unscanned' welcomers airside seems commonplace.

If you are concerned with airport security, what about addressing the unmonitored access that is possible from the nearby beach to the runway? Both myself and another foreign resident raised that security concern at least 2 years ago and nothing has been done about it.

Go visit the beach yourself and see the unimpeded access to the runway. At the very minimum this access should be blocked and CCTV cameras installed along the perimiter fence - Simon

Editor: Yes, indeed. A Phuketwan writer made the point recently how easy it was to shake the hand of Thailand's deputy PM when he and 30 other dignitaries gathered in Patong. He had a large, unchecked camera pack on his back. Phuket airport must be secure, without weak points.

Posted by Simon Luttrell on November 25, 2009 15:01

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Hilarious. This episode gave me my Monday morning chuckle.

It also gave all of us a perfect parable for one of Thailand's continual tourism problems: the Tourism Ministry and Immigration do not cooperate. It is doubtful they have ever even posed in the same publicity photo (until now).

Posters on Thailand forums often wonder why the TAT does nothing about immigration issues. In fact, the TAT is just the marketing arm of the Tourism Ministry - it holds absolutely no sway with Immigration.

As usual, the right hand doesn't know what the left is doing. (It's too busy shooting the foot.)

Posted by Jeff Studebaker on December 1, 2009 02:53


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