[Crowds seeking nightlife in Phuket. Photo: Terrazzo]
Recently waiting in Phuket airport for my delayed Thai Airways flight to Bangkok, I found myself surrounded by Russian travelers queuing up for nonstop flights to Vladivostok, Novosibirsk, and a few other cities whose names were only vaguely familiar to me.
Facing congestion in Phuket, whether at the airport, on the roads or on beaches has long been a familiar phenomenon. What is different is that the congestion is mostly caused by the onslaught of mass tourism from Russia and China.
Due to the recent ruble nosedive, it is now the big Chinese tour groups that are changing – rapidly and probably forever—what was once a quaint beach escape destination. Despite Phuket’s growing commercialization, Fortune magazine in 2005 still called it one of the five most attractive places in the world to retire.
A local hotelier I spoke to reported a significant change. Once his hotel (whose identity he wanted to keep to himself) use to be monopolized by sun-hungry Scandinavians. Now, he said, they occupy a mere 10% of his room capacity. Signs everywhere from the airport to roadside cafes appear in Russian, Chinese, and English.
No wonder. Hoteliers all over Southeast Asia are gearing up to cope with the massive influx, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The figures tell the story: Today an estimated 50% of Chinese citizens hold passports. In a few years China will boast more dollar millionaires than in the US. It is their accumulated spending power that no doubt helps putting China in top position in terms of outbound tourism spending, with expenditures reaching US$ 165 billion in 2014—an increase of 28% from the preceding year
In 2013 Phuket received 8 million visitors. In an effort to meet the increased demand, Phuket International Airport has been spending close to 6 billion baht to accommodate an expected 12.5 million passengers annually, of which the great majority will be foreigners. Soon a majority of these will be carrying a Chinese passport, up from a mere 20,000 Chinese arrivals in 2007! The Chinese presence is felt not only in southern Thailand, but all over southeast Asia: In 2014 the China National Tourism Administration recorded more than 107 million trips abroad, up 10.5% from the year before.
According to Thom Henley, an American travel writer and Phuket resident, tourist crowds bring the ratio between foreigners and locals in high season well above ten to one. The environment takes a beating. “I only rarely go for a swim in the ocean,” he says, “it’s just too polluted, and poses a public health threat, unless you stick to the Northern part of the island, or all the way down at the Southern end, where the strong currents wash effluents and debris away from the beaches.” Which perhaps explained the somewhat pallid skin color of the Russians waiting in line for their return flights; they seemed to have spent more time in Phuket’s numerous bars and massage parlors than in the surf.
What was once a densely forested island with lush hillsides facing wide stretches of beach now boasts 1,100 resorts with 24/7 traffic jams. Writer Tony Parsons (his recent 2012 novel: Catching the Sun) recommends North Phuket’s two national parks—Sirinath and Khao Phra Thaeo—as escapes for travelers trying to capture at least some of Phuket’s old magic, a safe distance away from the hordes in Karon and Patong. Here, he writes, “the beaches still have their steep natural slope so that giant turtles can crawl ashore and lay their eggs.”
Five years ago the government tried to launch a “green tourism” campaign, hiring police and soldiers to enforce a clean-up of polluted areas. At the same time, however, they allowed the construction of a monstrosity called Fantasea, a shabby reproduction of a Thai-style temple, where tourists flock to be photographed on the back of gaudily dressed live elephants, Las Vegas-style.
It is not an enviable fate to be “loved to death” by two populous nations whose citizens only recently can afford foreign travel, and who are not known for their environmental sensitivities. But Thailand’s record in the stewardship of its own nature capital is not to be applauded, as the ecosystems of countless island has paid a high price in the chase for short-term foreign currency.