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Trailblazing, Phuket style

As Phuket’s economy struggles to revive from the effects of a pandemic that has decimated the local tourism economy for nearly two years, it’s interesting to remember how the island went from a rather obscure tropical vacation destination to one of the world’s most vibrant and desirable playgrounds for those wanting winter sun, sand, recreation and entertainment not easily found anywhere else.

By Bruce Stanley

Sunday 23 January 2022, 02:00PM

Grenville Fordham out on the bay. Photo: Brian Stamm

Grenville Fordham out on the bay. Photo: Brian Stamm

The Thailand tourism authorities waged some successful campaigns to bring the country to the attention of the international travel industry, while on Phuket, a group of entrepreneurial westerners were also instrumental in developing the infrastructure to support the enthusiastic visitors who were looking for the Amazing Thailand they were promised.

Grenville Fordham was born in Yorkshire, England and lived in Malta and Kenya as a young boy. After a diverse career working in both the hotel and construction supplies industries, he moved to Thailand in 1995. He worked in Bangkok’s media as a writer at Thailand Times, editor at Living in Thailand magazine and as a freelance writer for international publications. 

In 1998, he moved to Phuket looking for the fresh air and easy living that brings most expats to the island. But rather than spending his time relaxing at the beach, he launched media company, Image Asia, best known today for Phuket’s premier dining guide, Where to Eat, and the bi-monthly print and online showcase of Phuket, Phang Nga and Krabi, Window on Phuket. He also published Exclusive Homes on Phuket and the Phuket Property Map providing hard information for potential Phuket property buyers, as well as Streets of Phuket, a detailed (pre-Google) road map of the island. 

“I started with a small office above my restaurant, Poo’s Beach, where we created a beach atmosphere complete with a floor of sand downstairs, while upstairs I was designing brochures and press releases for any business that needed promotion.”

Grenville soon became one of Phuket’s most active supporters of events. He worked as editor of Phuket Magazine and then for several years managed the media for Phuket’s famous King’s Cup Regatta, when the regatta grew from 50 to 100 entries.

“I had my first sailing experience, in the 1998 King’s Cup, on a 32-foot monohull and was immediately hooked on sailing,” he recalls.

Over the next five years, in addition to expanding his publishing ventures, working with business partner Andy Dowden, Grenville conceived and developed Thailand’s first boat show, the Phuket International Marine Expo (PIMEX), raising the international profile of Thailand’s leisure boating industry and putting Phuket on the map for the growing yachting community with expanding interest from regional players.

“One of the industry’s biggest challenges was negotiating the reduction of taxes on yacht imports. They were considered luxury goods and were taxed at over 200 percent. I joined, and then became Chairman of, the Marine Alliance of Thailand [now Thailand Yachting Business Association - TYBA], a group of lobbyists working with the government to have this tax reduced and thereby facilitate the growth of Thailand’s marine leisure industry. We were successful; import taxes were reduced to zero percent, leaving only 7% VAT. This single achievement by determined individuals led directly to today’s thriving marine leisure industry.”

July 2004 saw another first from Grenville’s Image Asia, with the inaugural Phuket Raceweek, a summer regatta when the monsoon winds made for better racing, which was voted ‘Best Asian Regatta’ in the Asia Boating Awards 2011.

2008 saw him venture into boatbuilding. Working with business partner Bob Mott, and employing a skilled local workforce, Niña, a 38-foot fast cruising catamaran was launched just in time for the 2009 Six Senses Phuket Raceweek, taking top honours in a field of seven competitive multihulls. 

Supported by founding authors Bill O’Leary and Andy Dowden, Grenville co-authors, designs and publishes Southeast Asia Pilot, the definitive guide to sailing in Southeast Asia and beyond. The book is published every two to three years, enjoys worldwide sales in print and electronic formats, and is the essential manual for anyone cruising or chartering a yacht in Asia.

Besides yachting and publishing, Grenville has been a strong supporter of Phuket’s business clubs and charities. He joined the British Business Association of Phuket and served two terms as Chairman. During his tenure, the club made many charitable donations, including to the Vachira Hospital Children’s Unit, the island’s Old People’s Home and Childwatch. Through his company he has also supported youth sailing through various avenues, including the purchase of dinghies for training underprivileged youngsters in Phuket and Koh Samui.

In 2017 he was awarded the rare accolade of Honorary Life Member of the British Chamber of Commerce in Thailand (BCCT) in recognition of service to British business interests in Phuket.

He joined the Phuket Yacht Club in its early days, originally supporting club racing as a sponsor, and went on to serve as Chairman of the committee that designed and built the current clubhouse/restaurant in Chalong, going on to serve as both club treasurer and commodore.

In 2019 Grenville decided to change course and divest himself of his media projects and responsibilities. “I’m busy these days with more personal projects. I have finished with the corporate world and plan to spend time writing and travelling. I’ve bought a Toyota Commuter van to convert into a camper van. Once it’s fully fitted out, my wife and I will spend weeks at a time on the road exploring Thailand.

On where Phuket should be looking for its tourism growth in the future, Grenville had this to say: "I’m not alone in believing that the kind of mass tourism we saw in the year or two prior to Covid is not what Phuket should be looking at if sustainable growth is an objective. In that context, it’s important to note that we can’t go backwards to the days of minimal shopping opportunities and deserted beaches; that’s not going to happen. Nor, in my opinion, is an exclusive focus on the super-wealthy going to give the island what it needs moving forwards.

“What I believe Phuket should be doing is a three-pronged approach: firstly focus on FIT tourists – those who may come on a hotel + flight package but are free to spend their money where they want. Next, do everything necessary to encourage yachting tourism, including clarifying regulations on bareboat charter and finalising the superyacht charter issue.

“And finally, make the obvious move towards legalised gambling – and I mean luxury casino operations a la Macau – on Phuket Island, combined with designating Phuket as a duty-free zone. In each case, we should be looking at lower overall numbers with higher spend per ‘tourism unit’, combined with maximum indirect economic impact, specifically more, better paid and more diverse jobs.”

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