A decade ago, Phuket, sparkling as the Pearl of the Andaman, had earned a global reputation as a must-see destination for travellers interested in unspoilt beaches, natural beauty and green tourism.
But those same travellers would today struggle to recognise Phuket. It is veering in the same direction as Pattaya with sex shows, prostitution and the exploitation of wild animals; the seediness mainly confined to Patong's ever-growing bar strip along Soi Bangla.
Add to that equation greedy jet ski operators and taxi and tuk-tuk drivers' reputation for fleecing customers and the holiday destination's image takes another blow.
Phuket's shift towards the shadows was highlighted last month after Barbadian R&B singer Rihanna made international headlines when she posted photos of herself posing with a protected slow loris and made X-rated comments about a sex show she had seen the previous night.
''Either I was phuck wasted last night, or I saw a Thai woman pull a live bird, 2 turtles, razors, shoot darts and ping pong, all out of her pu$$y,'' she tweeted to her 32 million followers on Sept 20.
Local officials responded as only they know how _ ''cracking down'' on the sex show operators and slow loris handlers, with three people now in custody; the latest the owner of the bar Rihanna allegedly saw the show in.
The district chief seemed surprised the bar even existed. ''The authorities found out about this bar the morning after Rihanna tweeted about it, but we were not able to catch them breaking the law until Saturday night,'' Veera Kerdsirimongkol said. ''We had been waiting for them and finally caught them red-handed.''
But the sex shows are no surprise to Weerawit Kruasombat, president of the Patong Entertainment Entrepreneurs Club, who says ''illegal and dirty'' businesses are operating all over Patong. He said Patong's image was now dominated by Soi Bangla.
''Holidaymakers used to visit Phuket after hearing about our beaches, but now Soi Bangla has come to represent Phuket all around the world,'' he said.
''When tourists arrive in Patong and they see strange sex shows, they remember Phuket as the place to see such things.''
But Santi Pawai, director of the Phuket Tourism and Sports Office, sticks to the line found in the tourist brochures.
Mr Santi said the highlights of Phuket are still the beaches and islands, as well as being a jumping-off point to visit other provinces such as Phangnga.
However, he did concede that ''nightlife, scams and illegal activities are possibly going on in crowded areas such as Patong, which have a different style to other eco-tourism spots around Phuket''.
In recent years, tourism in Phuket has shown strong, steady growth. In 2011, the number of visitors was 9,467,000, generating revenues of 188.8 billion baht.
Last year, the number rose to 10,789,000 visitors, and revenues of 228.9 billion baht. Visitor numbers for this year have already unofficially reached 10 million, said Mr Santi.
A 10-year comparison, according to Tourism and Sports Office statistics, shows that tourism revenue for Phuket has more than tripled from 72.5 billion baht in 2002.
Mr Santi likes to believe that the growth of tourism has been fostered by Phuket's eco-tourism credentials, accompanied by improved infrastructure and safety measures for travellers.
While he conceded there is an element of ''naughty nightlife'' in Phuket, he is sure it has reached saturation point and will not grow any further.
''Phuket has already grown in that direction,'' he said.
''But I think Phuket is not like Pattaya and we have a different appeal.''
Mr Santi is not worried about the eco-tourism push by Phangnga and Krabi, arguing that Phuket is working in alliance with the new competitors.
''The number of tourists in Phuket is excessive, and some decide to go to Phangnga, Krabi or Trang instead,'' he said.
''It is the strategy of the five Andaman provinces [Phuket, Phangnga, Krabi, Trang and Ranong] to share tourists and spread the tourism industry revenues.''
And Phuket Governor Maitree Intusut is happy to play second fiddle when it comes to eco-tourism as he believes his province has wider appeal.
''We may not be the lord of eco-tourism compared to Phangnga or Krabi, because we have different targets,'' he told Spectrum. ''Apart from our main beaches, we also have adventure activities, sport and other luxury relaxation activities.''
For its part, Phangnga is happy to focus on eco-tourism, although its tourism revenue pales by comparison with Phuket.
Pong-Anan Chanprai, Phangnga's Tourism and Sports Office director, said that 800,000 visitors to the province generated 6 billion baht in revenue in 2011.Last year, there were 900,000 tourists who generated revenues of 9billion baht and the numbers are likely to rise this year.
''We are promoting our natural attractions _ not only beaches, but also caves, waterfalls, hot springs and many others, as well as the culture and traditional lifestyles of local people such as the Muslim 'floating village' community on Koh Panyi,'' Mr Pong-Anan explained.
He is not worried that future growth of tourism will lead down the same path as Phuket, into sex shows and rowdy nightlife venues.
''We focus on quality tourists more than the number of tourists or year-on-year percentage growth in the tourism industry,'' he said. And the strategy certainly seems to be paying off (see the accompanying table, Tourist number growth).
''Quality tourists spend more money during their trip and cause fewer problems, while mass tourism means visitors come in huge numbers, spend less per person and cause more problems.
''We are close to Phuket, so people can visit the region and choose different styles of holiday.''
While tourist numbers are growing in Phuket, the crime rate is also climbing.According to police statistics, there were 2,737 crimes in 2006, rising steadily to 4,758 in 2009 and 8,201 last year. So far this year the number of cases has already reached 8,611.
Phuket Tour Guide Association president Panompon Thammachatniyom said increasing crime rates and complaints by travellers were a natural consequence of mass tourism and workers moving to the province from across the country.
''The culture and tradition of relying on natural resources in Phuket have declined over the past decade,'' he said.
''Phuket used to be a peaceful and attractive place, but now there are a lot more tourists who are of a different type than those who came before because of the rapid growth of the tourism industry here.
''There is more mass tourism now. Ten years ago, Phuket had more quality tourists. Now there are more people, more nationalities and many workers pouring in from provinces across the country.
''The positive side is that the number of tourists has increased every year, as has the money they bring in. But on the down side, crime and scams have become major concerns.''
He said outsiders from other provinces may not worry about ripping off tourists as they were less concerned with protecting Phuket's image than locals.
Mr Santi said tourist complaints were mainly about poor quality products, inconvenient transport options, unfair taxi prices often resulting in disputes and jet ski rental rip-offs.
Kathu Police Station Superintendent Pol Col Jirapat Pochanapan is responsible for the busy Patong tourist area and also blamed the growing problems on more ''strangers'' working in the area.
While the registered population of Patong is only 19,000, this figure jumps to between 45,000 and 60,000 in the high season, bolstered by seasonal workers from outside the province, he said.
''In the high season there are a lot more people coming to the area _ both tourists and workers from other provinces _ and crime in Patong mainly involves them, not the permanent residents,'' he said.
The most common crimes were drug-related, assault and theft, Pol Col Jirapat said, but he added that the national ''Safety Zone'' campaign introduced last year had helped reduce crime rates.
''We have checkpoints and police teams that routinely check around the crowded tourist venues every night,'' he said.
''Since the safety zone campaign began, the number of crimes per day has dropped gradually.''
However, he admitted that checking for sex shows such as the one Rihanna had tweeted about was difficult.
''It's quite hard to arrest people at sex shows as the bars always tell the police that they only have a ladyboy show or just a 'sexy dance','' he said. ''But whenever the police are not around, the sex show starts up again.
''For illegal activities such as the sex shows and slow loris petting, we have undercover agents checking places every night who are ready to arrest anyone caught.''
District chief Mr Veera was confident that the illegal activities Rihanna experienced would be eradicated with concerted policing.
''The number of sex shows is reducing thanks to our strict checks, and you can rarely find a slow loris in Soi Bangla as was the case before,'' he said.
''Local people who see such illegal activities can report them to us 24/7, and we are ready to arrest those involved. Cooperation from the locals is an essential part of cleaning up Patong.''
WHAT'S WRONG WITH BEING SEXY?
Despite the local constabulary and officials' confidence that they are on top of the crime situation, the greater debate remains whether Phuket was wise to depart from its traditional tourism strategy.
Mr Panompon of the Tour Guide Association believes that Phuket has neither a ''fixed'' international image as a nightlife destination nor as a luxury beach destination.
The new ''mass tourists'' are from Asian countries, and are not focused on nightlife: ''The mass tourists _ such as those from China or Korea _ are not interested in nightlife, bars or shows like those in Patong as they purchased tour packages and their schedules are fixed, and they have group activities arranged such as beach tours and shopping trips,'' he said.
''There are always more Western visitors in the nightlife areas where there are party bars and girls.
''Phuket has many different faces. We still have tranquil beaches as well as Patong _ which looks quite like Pattaya _ so people can choose what to do on their holiday.''
Mr Maitree, the province's governor, agrees that you have to take the good with the bad as tourist numbers increase.
But he does concede that greater efforts must be made to educate tuk-tuk and taxi drivers, and jet ski businesses, about treating tourists better.
''We have many meetings with tuk-tuk and taxi drivers working in tourist spots as well as jet ski operators and we also run educational seminars about responsibilities and service standards,'' he said. ''The campaign seems to be working as the number of complaints has been gradually dropping.''
Despite the illegal activities and scams, he believes Phuket's international image has not been harmed.
''Phuket still has the nice image that it used to,'' he said. ''Scams and illegal shows and even crime happen in most tourist centres, but we keep an eye on it and try to crack down on it.''
But neighbouring Phangnga has no intention of going down the same route of offering everything to all tourists, says Mr Pong-Anan from the Tourism and Sports Office.
''The annual budget allocation from the government will go to improving infrastructure,'' he said. ''We have no plans to promote anywhere in Phangnga for its nightlife.''
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