The pearl loses its luster
Sunnier Days: Tourists sunbathe on Nai Han Beach.
Phuket, like any attraction, relies on a positive image with potential visitors. However, such an image is still likely to be marred by high-profile crimes as well as a perceived lack of security.
Recent news reports of crimes on the island have put the reputation of the “Pearl of the Andaman” on the line. And they have arrived at the least opportune moment given that the island province has positioned itself as a main engine to revive the tourist sector of the country battered by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Provincial authorities have taken stock of the incidents and are moving quickly to address them to control the impacts on Phuket tourism, which is paving the way for the wider industry to restart in the country.
“We need to maintain a welcoming image. We have tried to prevent any setback to our reputation. Sometimes we succeed, other times we don’t,” said Pichet Panapong, deputy governor of Phuket.
Since the middle of last month, negative publicity has dominated the headlines, ranging from the overcharging of taxi fares, the theft of €5,000 (about 200,000 baht) from a family of Greek tourists and a scam at a call center that went after a Swiss who lost 57,000 baht.
But Phuket’s image as a safe tourist haven took an even bigger blow two weeks ago when an Indian gangster, Jimi Singh Sandhu, also known as Mandeep Singh, was gunned down outside his villa on Rawai Beach on February 4. Her body was discovered the next morning.
Phuket’s episode of bad press began on August 3 last year with the murder of Nicole Sauvain-Weisskopf, 57, deputy chief of protocol for the Federal Assembly of Switzerland.
Teerawat Thothip, 27, was arrested four days later after police found Weisskopf’s half-naked body at Ton Ao Yon waterfall two days earlier.
Police say the suspect admitted to sexually assaulting the woman after spotting her alone at the waterfall. However, she fought back so he drowned her, then covered her with a plastic sheet before stealing 300 baht from her.
Weisskopf’s murder came just over a month after Phuket reopened under the sandbox tourism scheme on July 1.
The incident touched a sore nerve for state agencies and frontline tourism businesses that had glimpsed a modest but sustained recovery in tourism following the reopening.
Authorities’ concerns grew after criminal cases spiked even as police worked hard to solve them.
The cases have seriously shaken the confidence of tourists, so much so that high-ranking police have traveled to Phuket to look into the investigation themselves. The Sandhu case prompted National Police Chief Suwat Jangyodsuk to travel to the province to follow up on the investigation.
Police said they have identified the suspects and warrants have been issued for their arrest.
Phuket has led the way by being the first province to “experiment” with reopening tourism.
From July 1 last year to February 10, 299,305 tourists visited the province, including those who registered in the country through the Test & Go program which offers an easy alternative to quarantine for fully vaccinated visitors.
Tourist arrivals to Phuket are expected to increase in the coming months.
At the same time, Warner Brothers’ Deep Blue Production moved its filming location from The Meg 2: The Trench film from Krabi to Phuket. The film will be shot from April 1 to May 15.
Early last week, the filmmakers sat down with Mr. Pichet to discuss the production, which is set to shoot in Tambon Patong.
Mr. Pichet acknowledged that crime was one of the biggest problems in the tourism industry. Yet the sooner the suspects are caught, the sooner the damage to Phuket’s tourist reputation can be contained.
Phuket Governor Narong Woonciew said officials had addressed many issues. For example, the issue of taxis was being dealt with by officials of the Deputy Prime Minister and land transport offices with the help of private transport operators.
As for the robbery case involving the family of Greek tourists, some residents rallied to their aid and donated money to the victims, which shows the hosts’ compassion for their guests.
Overcharged taxi fares have long been a problem for tourism in Phuket. Despite all the efforts of the authorities to eradicate it, tourists continue to file complaints.
The question has sometimes reached its climax with fights between customers and taxi drivers, tuk tuk or motorcycle taxis.
Customers say the rates charged by drivers are arbitrary and unfair. The issue was raised by foreign diplomats who met with the governor of the province.
On January 28, a wealthy Thai tourist said he was charged 600 baht by a taxi for a 20-minute ride from Kamala Beach to Patong Beach.
The Land Transport Bureau then fined the taxi driver 2,000 baht. The driver also received demerits and was sent for retraining.
In July 2019, two Australian tourists filed a complaint against the driver of a public van who charged them 3,000 baht for a traffic-free 50km journey from the airport to their hotel.
Jaturong Kaewkasi, head of the Phuket land transport office, told the Bangkok Post that tariffs were standardized across the province and that tariffs could be downloaded from the office’s website. Customers can always call the office hotline on 1584 24 hours a day.
“We listened to all parties before arriving at standard fares suitable for travel to Phuket. Fares may vary from other provinces,” he said.
The application known as Hello Phuket Service has been approved by the Department of Land Transport. Additionally, more metered taxis will come into service and offer fares that customers and drivers can agree on.
A source at a private transport company suggested that all modes of public transport in Phuket should be allowed to pick up customers at the airport to create competition. It would also deter unscrupulous practices in the transport sector.
Taxis should be prohibited from charging extra to pick up customers at the airport.
Mr Pichet said using an app to call taxis and display an estimated fare will make travel fairer and cheaper.
Kongsak Khoopongsakorn, chairman of the Thai Hotel Association, Southern Chapter, expressed concern about the overall image of the province. Stories about the taxi fare fiasco and local murders have been playing out on social media.
He said the high taxi fares were difficult to manage. Drivers picking up customers from the airport claim they have to charge double the normal fare because, coming from the city, they are only allowed to drop customers off at the airport but not pick up new ones from there.
He said some web pages have caused a stir on Phuket transport to stir up the hype. Some even make up incidents in an attempt to drive a wedge between Phuket taxi drivers and tourists.
Mr Kongsak said the killings that took place in Phuket stemmed from personal disputes. When they go out of their way to conjure up a false image of Phuket as a dangerous tourist destination, the province and its tourism industry suffer.
“I call on the government to take a strong stance. Illegal weapons must be eliminated and suspects must be brought to justice in a timely manner.
“Everyone has a role to play in being a good host,” he said.
Kongsak said tourist arrivals have stabilized in the province since February 1, with 2,000 to 3,000 tourists entering Phuket daily. Hotel occupancy rates are hovering between 30 and 40 percent, although that number will start to drop next week.
“But we still see a silver lining with Thai tourists,” he said, adding that domestic tourists are expected to take advantage of Phase 4 of the Rao Tiew Duay Kan (We Travel Together) co-pay program and head to Phuket.
Single master plan
Sonthaya Kongthip, chairman of the Baan Bangtao-Cherngtalay Tourism Community Enterprise, said Phuket needs to follow a common master plan at the local level so that every stakeholder is aware of the strengths and weaknesses of local tourism.
The master plan should emphasize equity in the conduct of tourism activities, should ensure that tourists are treated fairly and ensure that tourism revenues are distributed more equitably.
“We have to put ourselves in our visitors’ shoes. It’s part of the charm of Phuket,” he said.
Mr Sonthaya said a consultative approach might work better to solve difficult problems. For example, tourists should be asked what public transport fares they are willing to pay before fares are set, taking into account the mountainous geography of the province which is a factor in fuel consumption.
Regarding taxi fares, he suggested holding a forum where public transport drivers could fully express their views.
Meanwhile, Pheu Thai MP for Bangkok, Anudit Nakhonthap, urged the government to quickly repair Phuket’s image and avoid further negative effects on tourism recovery.
One way to solve the problem was to recruit more tourism police, as there are only 1,800 in the whole country, he said.