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Sethapan Buddhani: a silky, saffron approach to marketing Phuket

Phuket Zen and Now: Setbacks and Survival Guides

Saturday, May 23, 2009
BEING philosophical is a way of life these days for Phuket's regional Tourism of Thailand director Sethapan Buddhani.

If there is a tourism problem of any kind, anywhere, he knows it will surface on Phuket for sure.

However, Khun Sethapan is better prepared than most. With excellent timing, he was able to spend several months as a monk before taking on the task of selling Phuket to the world.

Looking back, a serene period in saffron seems the only sensible preparation for the airport blockades, economic downturns, postponed summits and virus outbreaks that have since plagued the island.

In robes or out of them, Khus Sethapan seldom lets setbacks affect his positive viewpoint.

He sees better times ahead and, with the help of the island's key administrators, he is already planning fresh ways to help Phuket overcome its woes.

Coming up, a gathering of the clans. Not the Scottish ones, but the much larger and far more influential Chinese clans.

''Phuket can be the host and bring together all the family members of each clan,'' he said. ''Perhaps we can invited a different clan here each month.''

Another idea: sinking an obsolete railway train or two to continue the good work underwater that began with the Sky Dive Reef of outdated aircraft that was sunk off Bang Tao last year.

Many of the better ideas spring from interaction between a variety of Phuket tourism leaders, including Paiboon Upatising, Chief Executive of the Phuket Provincial Administrative Organisation, who is currently beleaguered by claims of vote-buying.

''My job is marketing and promotion,'' Khun Sethapan says, smiling, even though it's clearly no easy task.

His estimate at present is that it will take Phuket two years, perhaps three years, to fully recover from its current woes.

A road show to China may have produced results if not for the setback at Songkran, when mass cancellations followed the street protests in Bangkok.

But he is heartened by Bike Week, which added 4000 booked rooms in April with the bonus of 40 motorcycle journalists from many countries to promote future events.

Consideration is something he talks about a lot and always shows to others in trying to put together packages that might appeal to new markets.

When asked about Phuket's biggest problem, he offers another single c-word: ''Corruption.'' And the way to beat it?

''If every organisation does its job properly, everything will be all right for Phuket,'' he said. ''It will be great for Phuket.''

He sees security improving, with CCTV and possibly more police, and he believes Phuket's inherent strength lies in its people.

''The private sector here is a very strong community,'' he says. ''Not only that, they speak up.''

Why does the TAT always take the blame when Phuket's occupancy expectations are not met?

''They think we are angels. They think we have authority to spend huge sums.

''Actually, we are go-betweens who bring people together and make suggestions.

''We cannot command action, all we can do is simply say 'Please help us.'''

He sees hope under the current government for obtaining a conference centre capable of holding 5000 visitors, although he thinks there are sound reasons why it might be more effectively located in Phang Nga, just off the island.

Yet he loves what Phuket has to offer, as well as the mix and the blend of many cultures and religions living in harmony.

Working in the TAT's New York office when a terrorist attack toppled the twin towers of the World Trades Centre, he says: ''I learned one thing from 9/11, and that was, do not be afraid.

''Show consideration, carefully work out how to solve each problem, which way to go. Choose good partners.

''I learned a lot from that.'' Perhaps, after 9/11 and the 2004 tsunami, all Phuket's woes are at least not life-threatening.

Khun Sethapan sees Phuket's future as a destination for sea and sport, but adds that the island definitely needs a long-term strategic plan locked in place, no matter who runs the local administrations.

''We have more than 500 hotels on Phuket,'' Khun Sethapan says, ''that's nearly 40,000 rooms.''

While one crisis after another has perhaps finally forced local resorts to consider united action, often the long-term collective needs are overlooked.

And there are different kinds of resorts, with different needs: new resorts have a different outlook to established resorts and chain-branded resorts, and resorts with their own ''private'' beaches are different again.

Meeting the needs of them all is never going to be easy, even with the patience of a monk and the resourcefulness of a skilled marketer.

Seven days a week, Khun Sethapan is kept busy at meetings and functions. ''Right now, we have to work harder,'' he says.

When Khun Sethapan does find the time, he likes to ride a motorcycle around the island, stopping to take in the views, try the local food and talk to tourists.

A major survey of 1500 tourists by the TAT also provides some useful information: ''Most people say Phuket is too crowded, and 15 percent say that local people have taken advantage of them.''

Mind you, 82 percent say they are happy overall with their Phuket holiday experience, and many say they will return.

Khun Sethapan says he thinks the balance with nature needs to be better-maintained, though. Property developers on the island generally fall into two categories, with some only interested in making a quick profit.

He has another meeting and it's time to go, but not before another idea springs to mind.

''Perhaps when the next artificial reef is sunk, we can get some of the world's most famous sports people to put their handprints in concrete, and we can sink those, too,'' Khun Sethapan says.

''We could also have an underwater letter postbox . . . .''

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