However, Governor Phakaphong did give one figure that lent a lot of credence to the B2bn expectation: that the pre-festival occupancy rate for hotels in Phuket Town and other key areas associated with the festival stood at 65%. That is not a figure hoteliers would want to shout about, not even in the “low season”.
The reasons given for the current slump in tourism are many and oft-reported: a global economic slowdown, the strong baht value hitting tourists on exchange rates, the US-China trade war, the list goes on. Yet the Vegetarian Festival itself has suffered a slump in popularity of its own in recent years.
The festival year after year came under increasing criticism for not being authentic as Mah Song spirit mediums paraded through town with all sorts of instruments protruding through their faces, including six-shooter revolvers, beach umbrellas and even a bicycle.
Festival organisers realised the damage being done to the festival’s image and passed on “requests” through shrine administrators to not support such antics, and the effect has been noticed with the outrageous displays slowly disappearing from the street processions.
That in itself may explain in part a fall in the festival’s popularity with tourists. Thanks to international media, sensational facial piercings are exactly what tourists expected to see when they came here. Now that the piercings are mostly more traditional, the lure for tourists to come to see that something a little bit different while on their holiday has faded.
Yet the popularity of the sensational facial piercings, and their subsequent fall from grace, must be recognised as part of the festival’s heritage. The festival is the physical embodiment of the island’s living culture, and all cultures take odd twists and turns on their journey through history.
We may yet see a revival of the “non-traditional” piercings, or we may not, that is for those taking part in the festival to decide, but the Vegetarian Festival has been observed in Phuket long before the island became a tourist hotspot.
Long may the original festival remain regardless of tourist arrival figures, and regardless of every other major city and minor town throughout the country staging their own version. Phuket remains the spiritual home of the Vegetarian Festival. Devotees can attest to that.