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Greenery need to be part of the big picture: Suwalai Pinpradab

Phuket TAT Director Bound for Europe

Monday, July 14, 2008
TRENDS Special

SUWALAI Pinpradab, who heads the Tourism Authority of Thailand in Phuket, Phang Nga, Krabi and Ranong, will be boosting the number of Europeans who come to the Andaman region from now on.

Why? Because, after working on the island for the past four-and-a-half years, she is taking up a new posting from August, in Europe.

Taking Khun Suwalai's role in the Southern Office, Region 4, will be Settapan Puttanee, who is transferring from his role as director in the TAT's New York office.

He is currently experiencing some time out as a Buddhist monk, as many Thais do, and will take up the new job in October.

Having been in the World Trade Centre when suicide terrorists brought down the twin towers on September 11, 2001, it's easy to understand why Khun Settapan, between assignments, might seek some serenity and spiritual renewal.

Tourism is a tough game. Violence, whether it be manufactured or natural, deters travellers more than anything else. Health concerns come a close second, followed by galloping prices.

Khun Suwalai's time on Phuket has been bookended by one natural disaster, the 2004 tsunami, and a gusher of pain that could prove almost as significant, the whooshing cost of oil and air fuel.

At least in the scheme of things, her appointment to Frankfurt could be good timing. Few people are better equipped to understand and promote the tourism needs of Thailand in general, and Phuket especially.

Being an even-handed person, Khun Suwalai will do the right thing by all of Thailand's tourist destinations. But Phuket, she says, is home.

The TAT takes criticism from almost every quarter, and usually it's undeserved. Overseeing the best interests of Phuket and three other competitive provinces, Khun Suwalai seldom manages to please everybody.

Ever the diplomat, she remains even-handed and focused on the best interests of the region, long term not short term.

What really gets her going are the man-made problems on Phuket. When we spoke earlier this year, she christened the island ''the billboard capital of the world.''

At the time, she called for a summit meeting of Phuket's leaders to arrive at some solutions to a growing list of serious problems.

Others now seem to realise how much of an eyesore the billboards are, but the summit meeting has yet to happen. That's a pity.

Khun Suwalai has been in the position of talking to tourism leaders and tourists and seeing the region up close for more than four years. She helped to bring it back to life after the tsunami.

In her farewell interview with Phuketwan, Khun Suwalai, was brutally frank: ''Right now we have a big problem with air fares, especially for the long haul trips.

''This coming high season should be ok. But next year . . . I don't know.''

Her biggest concern remains the need for a balance between beauty and business, a balance that so far eludes Phuket.

The island seems to be in a hurry to turn itself into a characterless suburb of shophouses and high-priced homes.

Khun Suwalai much prefers bygone days, when Phuket was more about beauty. And she continues to repeat her Cassandra call: keep it natural, or you will lose the lot.

She uses some industry jargon. ''If we do not have carrying capacity, Phuket will suffer. Don't you think so?'' she asks, always keen to hear another opinion.

What she means is, how can Phuket possibly expect more and more tourists to come, providing more prosperity, unless we protect the best things that the island has to offer, the things that attract the money in the first place?

For any reader who doesn't know what these things are, let's list them: the golden beaches (now being buried under loungers and jetski noise) the greenery of plantations and jungle (now disappearing beneath concrete and billboards) and the sparkling coral reefs (living jewels being bleached by the masses).

The emphasis here is from Phuketwan not Khun Suwalai, but it's simple, really. The goose that laid the golden egg is being asked to support the tourism and property industries, to produce double-yolkers.

The axe is on the chopping block.

Honest as ever, Khun Suwalai is wistful about the Phuket she remembers from when she was a young woman.

''Once, we used to have a lot of trees and plantations,'' she says. ''Right now, there are housing projects everywhere. I think tourists prefer the island green, the way it used to be.

''Everything has two sides,'' Khun Suwalai says. ''Tourism brings money to Phuket but it is also destructive. We used to have a beautiful island.''

In some ways, the fuel and air fares crisis provides another pause for Phuket to think again, and perhaps get it right.

After the tsunami, there was a lot of talk about achieving a better balance. But the island blew it. Sensibly, Phang Nga and Krabi banned beach vendors and beach loungers.

Khun Suwalai hopes that at least the high cost of fuel might produce a push for more public transport on Phuket, where too much control still lies in the hands of the tuk-tuk drivers and other self-interested pressure groups.

As for the coral reefs, she believes the time could come when the number of people who visit them has to be limited or the reefs are in danger of being destroyed.

''We should allow 100 or 200 guests to visit each day, and those who do go pay more for the privilege,'' she says.

Patong is her least favorite beach destination. ''Lots of tourists like Patong,'' she says. ''I don't know why.

''It's lucky Phuket has such a wide variety of beaches. We have done a lot to nature, but nature is still beautiful.

''Right now, we have to present Phuket as a green island.''

She still wants to see the billboards brought down, she still wants to put the powerlines underground, and she still wants roadsides and median strips to be beautified with trees and bushes.

She thinks that the TAT Green Leaf program is vital. She believes it can help resort managements to understand that every tree they plant or save is a bonus, helping Phuket to maintain its natural image today . . . and in what is now almost certain to be a more difficult future.

From August, she will have 13 countries to look after. But Phuket will see her again regularly. ''I have a house here and so many friends,'' she said.

A new assistant director is coming from India.

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