As David Keen of branding company Quo gave examples of how New Zealand had boosted numbers with its “Pure” campaign, or how Yorkshire had done the same with its “Have a brilliant Yorkshire”, there were mutters all around the room, filled with around 200 people, about whether Phuket needs any more tourists or, indeed, can stand any more.
On the stage, the father of Phuket tourism, Wichit Na Ranong, explained how, decades ago, he and others had formulated a plan for the government to guide Phuket’s tourism development.
It was accepted and although Thai Airways started flying regularly to the island, there was no budget for most of the rest of the plan, so it didn’t happen.
Alongside him, Daniel Meury of Andara commented, “Phuket is paying the price for its success.” Anthony Lark of Montara, agreed. “Phuket used to be beaches and Thainess. Market forces have driven development in an uncontrolled way. Perceptions of Phuket are mixed. There are many negative opinions.”
In the audience, Wolfgang Meusburger who includes in his portfolio the Holiday Inn in Patong, said, “It’s a classic case of things going bad when there is no control and everyone does whatever they want.”
Mr Keen, always nimble on his feet, swerved away from his numbers but argued that Phuket still needs to define itself. Without definition there would be no pride and no direction. He even offered to work on Phuket’s brand pro-bono.
He challenged anyone in the audience to sum the island up in a word or phrase. There were no takers.
So Mr Keen called for hands from those who would join an über-committee – a Tourism Council of Phuket, perhaps – to include the various chambers, associations, clubs and stakeholder organisations on the island that are already involved in steering things, often in conflicting directions. Perhaps 25 hands went up.
Russell Russell spoke for many when he said, “There really is no one in this room who can drive forward the changes needed in infrastructure and branding. We can talk about it but we can’t drive it.”
But Mr Wichit disagreed that it was time for the government, or some form of authority, to take a grip and make a plan.
“No, not top-down,” he said. “No one is better than the people sitting here and the stakeholders to create the plan.”
Presenting the plan to government, in a way that it would be accepted and supported, is an art, he explained. “You have to cook the food and then chew it for them. Then you can take it to a higher level [so they can digest it easily].”
He added, “Any children who stay quiet get forgotten. So you have to demand.” But who would do this cooking, chewing and demanding? Michael Ayling, new boss of Royal Phuket Marina, agreed that it was “now the time to come together”.
“Phuket is developing as a mass tourism destination,” he said, causing shudders around the room, “and we have to adapt to that.” He suggested that the major developers should take the lead.
Mr Lark – who could never be accused of catering to mass tourism – said that, instead, “Phuket needs breathing space to slow down, to fix the garbage, infrastructure and development.”
Mr Wichit came back to his argument that people need to come together to define Phuket and devise a coherent way forward. The page could not be wiped clean, he said. “We have to paint a picture on a cloudy sheet. But better that than no painting at all.”
He added, “We have to be ready for some pain.”
There was surprisingly little dissent in the room. All appeared to agree that Phuket is in a mess, that everyone is pursuing his or her own interests without regard to their effect on others, that the authorities are reactive rather than proactive, and that the island is sorely in need of a plan.
All the participants went away with plenty to think about. Whether the discussion will result in people actually coming together to give Phuket direction remains to be seen.
But, warned Mr Wichit, “We should not wait until everything breaks.”