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Reading Phuket's signs

PHUKET: Jody Houton interviews Mumbai-born Australian, Zarir Bamji, former regional marketing director for one of the world’s biggest shipping companies, and habitual sign-fixer.


By Jody Houton

Wednesday 1 August 2012, 02:24PM


1. What originally brought you to Phuket?

Unlike many tourists who come to Phuket for the night life and bars, I have always been fascinated by Phuket’s history and scenic beauty.

Most tourists who visit Phuket are unaware of its rich and colourful history, as the island used to be on one of the major trading routes between India and China.

It would be good if TAT could identify and signpost the location at Phuket port where, in olden days, Portuguese, Dutch, French and English ships came to trade.

Another reason is that I loved the scenery in the James Bond movie ‘Man with the Golden Gun’, and wanted to see Khao Phing Kan (now commonly referred to as James Bond Island), so I spent quite a bit of time at that spot to take it all in, during my first trip.

 

2. You fix the English grammar and spelling of signs from around the world... Why?

I used to work for shipping company American Export Lines, which took me all around the world.

Many years ago, when I was travelling through Vietnam, Cambodia and China, I noticed a group of Western tourists gathered around a sign-board in a tourist spot laughing and joking about the poor quality of English on the signs.

As they were taking photographs of these signs, I walked up to them and asked if they could speak the local language of the country they were in.

When they replied in the negative, I asked if they would please wait while I got together a group of local citizens to laugh at them and take photographs of them as they could not speak the local dialect.

This, of course, did not go down too well with the group but ever since then, I have always tried to assist the local people in various countries to write their signs in perfect English, as I can well understand the importance of this.

 

3. What do you think of the state of Phuket signs?

Well, if you compare Phuket signs with those in other countries, all I can say is that I have seen much worse. However, the signage at some of the major hotels in Phuket could still be improved.

4. As an experienced marketing professional, what are your thoughts on Phuket?

Thailand is at a very interesting stage of its socio-economic development, and I feel that Phuket is the ideal tourism destination for individuals and families alike.

It has everything going for it and can satisfy every tourist requirement: adventure, eco-tours, leisure, religious, historical and so on.

Unfortunately, the local transport facilities need to be improved so that visitors can enjoy the same cheap and plentiful transportation as they do in Bangkok.

In my opinion the relevant authorities should now focus on ‘quality’ rather than ‘quantity’ in regards to the type of tourists that visit Phuket.

While some may fear that this would reduce the number of visitors coming here and hence adversely affect their business, I feel that it would have just the opposite effect and result in a greater inflow of quality, high spending tourists like families, nature lovers, MICE delegates, etc.

This may solve the problem of lean times that hotels face here during the off season, as Phuket can boost its image as a year round quality tourist destination.

 

5. Do you think Myanmar might emerge as a rival for tourists?

I have been absolutely amazed by the rapid pace of progress in Myanmar.

During my time I have seen many countries come out of their shell and evolve into booming economies – including the likes of China, India, Thailand, and Vietnam – but I have never come across any country that has displayed the same rapid pace in their tourists in-flows as in Myanmar.

Their consulates all over the world have been inundated by requests for tourist and business visas as people flock there in their thousands to see something different and also take advantage of the many business opportunities springing up there for expats and locals alike.

Hotels in Myanmar are enjoying an unprecedented boom and have increased their daily rates more than 300 per cent over the past few months. I feel that this is rather short-sighted and in the long term such opportunistic behaviour may damage the reputations of not only the hotels, but the country as a whole.

Myanmar is the largest country in Southeast Asia and has been richly endowed with scenic beauty as well as vast mineral wealth. Although the number of tourists visiting there is just a fraction of Thailand’s numbers, over time, I fear that some Thailand destinations may be overlooked by tourists, in favour of Myanmar – and that is something people here should keep in mind.

 

6. What are your thoughts on the introduction of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015?

BRITISH INTERNATIONAL SCHOOL, PHUKET

The proposed single market and production base will lead to a highly competitive economic region, but one where I feel that some countries may benefit more than others.

Myanmar, for instance has the most to gain in my opinion if they decide to fully integrate into the region’s and global economy.

After 2015 we will see a much stronger and better integrated region where there will be a freer movement of goods and services, investment and skilled labour that will benefit the entire Asean region as a whole.

 

7. How has Thailand changed since you first came here?

Well, I have been coming to Thailand since the early 1970s, so you can appreciate that the changes that I have noticed are quite dramatic.

The old world charm of many of the previous houses all over Bangkok have given way to huge high-rise towers and there are only a few pockets of the old buildings left scattered all over the city.

Over the past 40 years I have seen it make major advances in several industries, including hotels and tourism, manufacturing facilities for domestic and international markets, agricultural produce, and processed food.

The quality of manufactured products has improved considerably, although some of their product brochures and publicity material could be improved.

Even car manufacturers like Honda have established a major production line in Thailand and I feel that this trend could continue with other big overseas companies establishing their base here.

 

8. We talked with many Myanmese when you were here last. What did they say to you?

I am glad you accompanied me during some of the conversations I had with the local Myanmese shop-keepers around Jungceylon.

Many of them told me that they had come to Phuket (and also other parts of Thailand) to improve their lot as there were not many opportunities for them back in Myanmar.

I explained to them how things had dramatically improved in their home country and urged them to check things out for themselves either by going back or by asking their relations who remain there.

As you noticed, as I went around, I was also honing my skills of guessing the origins of those people and was delighted when I got it right most of the time.

I would start my conversation with them in Hindi and surprisingly most of them understood me and answered in the same language. Many of them have their origins in Nepal even though their families have been living in Myanmar for many generations.

As you know many of these Myanmese migrants work in menial but much-needed jobs like the construction industry and there may be a problem filling the vacuum if they did choose to return home.

Many of the migrants that we spoke to said that they were aware of these dramatic improvements back home and nearly all of them were planning a trip back to Myanmar in the near future to learn first-hand about the scope for their eventual return.

 

9. What are your predictions for the future of Phuket?

I see continued prosperity for Phuket and hope that over time your island will develop some other industries to alleviate its heavy reliance on tourism.

I feel there is good scope for the development of seafood exports, and organic fruits and vegetables. Tourism will continue to be the mainstay and although the number of visitors to your island annually is already quite impressive, this can get a further boost if the authorities implement some of the suggestions I have made above.

You may recollect that during our discussions a couple of years ago, I had told you that the pattern of overseas visitors to Thailand was set to change quite dramatically, because of the new affluence of people in China and India, who would travel globally in large numbers.

This has now come to pass and it is quite common to see many tourists here from India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, as well as visitors from China, South Korea and Russia.

Thailand has made rapid and impressive economic progress over the years and Thai people can rightfully be proud of this achievement. However Patong presently appears to get most of the business in Phuket, to the detriment of the other suburbs.

Once the local transport problem is resolved, it will be more conducive for tourists to visit all Phuket.

10. Last, but certainly not least, will the quality of Phuket signs improve?

I am sure this will occur through natural attrition – as in other countries.

 

 

 

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