Start with the predominantly transient tourist population, add a dash of thrill-seeking and a potentially disastrous recipe is born.
A description of three island visitors begins the story:
1) Robert from the UK rents a motorbike in Phuket. After all, it’s a cheap and easy way to get around the island. But he never rode one at home.
2) Annie from China takes a speedboat snorkelling tour to Coral Island. With such beautiful waters, who can blame her? But she’s never snorkelled before.
3) Yolov from Russia swims at Surin Beach in front of the red flags. He is not an experienced beachgoer. And he’s never swum in the ocean before.
What do these different scenarios have in common?
Phuket’s tourist triad consists of three different activities: land transport; marine transport; and ocean activities.
Participating in these three activities accounts for the vast majority of all accidental injury deaths in Phuket. Why?
The tourist fog
Visitors arrive in Phuket from all corners of the globe, from airport to airport, and are often jet-lagged, unfamiliar with local customs and ill-informed about the risks they face compared to their home country.
The misperception that risky activities they see others doing here are now safe for them because they are on holiday can be intoxicating. Even the mundane in their home country takes on heightened risk here in Phuket.
Many foreign countries operate transportation safely, both on land and over water. With some exceptions, traffic flows more smoothly overseas and road safety is taken for granted. Beach safety is also taken much more seriously on many other holiday islands.
Many tourists arriving through Phuket International are unprepared for the lack of solid infrastructure and coordinated public safety systems that exist in their home countries. Even adventure-savvy travellers can be caught unaware. Unfortunately, many of these people will be accidentally injured or even killed every year while engaging in the triad.
The local soup
Locals set the example for tourists on the roads and in the water. Visitors brand new to Phuket quickly pick up the habits of local drivers and can drive just as recklessly, even though such risky behaviour back home would land them in jail.
The same goes for marine safety. The inexperienced or intoxicated tourist crashing a jet-ski after riding recklessly is a common occurrence here. Where did they get the idea to try the dangerous driving that led to the crash? From the local jet-ski touts showing off in the surf line.
At Phuket’s beaches, local surfers are often in the water during the rough conditions of monsoon season. Red flags do not deter experienced surfers; in fact, they can attract them. Unfortunately, many tourists watching see how “easy it is” to handle Phuket’s monsoon surf and then try it themselves.
Fortunately, most of these surfers also act as de facto lifeguards, rescuing many tourists who get in over their heads. Bystanders on the shore who are not familiar with that particular stretch of coast are ill-advised to attempt such rescues. Doing so could mean one more life taken by the triad.
Another bitter root in the local soup is the ongoing lack of adequate lifeguard and marine rescue services available on and surrounding the island. Phuket is hemmed in by water, and every year the number of tourists transported by vessel to nearby destinations increases. However, the water-based public safety net remains outdated and ineffective and has failed to keep pace with the explosion in tourist arrivals.
Marine accidents, vessel sinkings, road deaths and ocean drownings are much too common in Phuket. As a result, the holiday island’s safety reputation is a shambles.
The infrastructure, governmental and systematic public safety changes needed to reduce triad casualties will take years, perhaps even decades.
There is hope on the horizon, though. The swim programme that just took place at British International School, Phuket – BISP, a joint venture between Chiang Mai and Patong Rotary Clubs and Asia Pacific Environmental Network, is a huge step in the right direction.
Local businesses, especially hotels, along with concerned citizens groups are beginning to recognise the severe impact the triad will have on Phuket’s tourism future and are starting to demand and take action.
It is only through the dedicated efforts of a caring and concerned community that the problems of the triad will be addressed. We must now face these issues squarely. The future of Phuket’s tourism depends on it.
Daren Jenner is a bodysurfer and Ocean Lifeguard in Southeast Asia. He is also a Marine Safety Officer for the International Surf Lifesaving Association.