Shaun Stenning, CEO of 5 Star Marine, delivered the message while speaking as one of the panel of industry experts at the Joint Chambers Phuket Business Briefing “What’s Ahead - Phuket’s Plan for Kickstarting the Economy”, led by the Australian Chamber of Commerce, held at Boat Lagoon Marina on Wednesday night (Oct 20).
Mr Stenning delivered three key points: a need to focus more on domestic travellers as a survival and growth strategy shifting away from over-reliance on international visitors; a need for clear coordinated rules for conducting tours to neighbouring provinces Phang Nga and Krabi; and a clear shift away from the volume of mass tourism of the past.
Mr Stenning pointed out that 5 Star Marine made a big decision to maintain operations throughout the pandemic.
“We actually grew during the past 18 months,” he said.
“Phuket’s marine industry needs to learn that we need a strong domestic base in tourism,” Mr Stenning said.
While pre-COVID “almost 90%” of his customer base were international tourists, throughout the pandemic the target market shifted to domestic visitors.
“We have been nearly full, out every day, but not Sandbox customers,” he said.
“All that work that Phuket has done to make Phuket more accessible to the Bangkok market, I think that Phuket needs to do that moving forward,” Mr Stenning noted.
“We can’t throw that to the wayside once the international market returns. I think we need a steady approach.
“We can soften out that curve between the high and low season by using the domestic market. We as a marine tourism business are finding that domestic travellers are more likely to come out in the low season, so that might be a reverse way for us in the marine industry to survive as we move forward.
“We shouldn’t go just chasing numbers from the internationals flights, but chasing numbers from the domestic flights as well,” he added.
Mr Stenning noted that the hotel industry has had the COE (Certificate of Entry) to deal with, which has had enough problems already well reported.
However, he pointed out, “But we in the marine industry have had to deal with three provinces telling us what we can and can’t do.
“Phuket only has three islands, Koh Racha, Koh Hei and Koh Maithon, that anyone actually wants to go to. So if you are stuck in Phuket and you can’t leave the province without interacting with some other provincial order this becomes a nightmare for us to run our business.
“I have a full-time compliance officer. His job is to check the government orders every day and tell me what I can and can’t do. What the Marine Director says I can and can’t do. Sometimes a boat goes out and has to come back,” he added.
“The order changed overnight and the publishing of that order was so late the night before that no one in the Marine Office knew about it until they actually picked up the paperwork and read it,” he explained.
“As we move forward as a marine industry we really have to push as a body to say that the three provinces that border us, where all of the islands we visit lay, we have to work together.”
Mr Stenning highlighted one experience while visiting Phi Phi island in July. “I had a COVID test so I could go, but when I came back Phuket officials would not accept the Phuket-issued COVID test. It makes no sense,” he explained.
The variety of government offices and agencies having their own COVID entry and compliance rules, often conflicting with one another, was a source of frustration and confusion, he noted.
“It creates a sense of being overwhelmed among tourists when we explain all about what they can and can’t do. They think after they land in Phuket that the COE was the last hurdle. It’s not. If you come out on a boat, that’s the first hurdle. We have three more hurdles for you to jump through before you can actually leave the province,” he said.
“I think as we move forward we really have to find a way as an industry, and with the provincial governments and tourism associations, where we can work with our bordering provinces and have to have a collaborative way to the way we operate rules.
“This would have helped the Phang Nga 7+7 Sandbox programme, this would have helped the Krabi 7+7 programme, but everyone was so confused with the rules that no one did anything,” Mr Stenning noted.
Mr Stenning marked that some progress has been made.
“That was before, now we have the Krabi rules brought in line with the Phuket rules, so it’s great that the government has caught up,” he said.
Of note, Phang Nga officials last week also brought their provincial entry requirements into line with Phuket.
“We just need to get the message straight with the consumer, and that is a big thing,” Mr Stenning said.
DEATH TO THE OLD WAYS
“We can’t go back as a marine industry to what we were before,” Mr Stenning cautioned.
“We saw what we did and what effect that had on the environment. You can see that in the before and after photos. Take a look at a before and after photo of Patong, of Khai Island, of Phi Phi Ley. All of these amazing destinations are amazing again, but they are amazing again because we weren’t allowed to go,” Mr Stenning said plainly.
“So I think the better approach is coming to a more sustainable way in what we do. I understand that we all have got to make money. We all have to be profitable. We all have to be commercially viable. But in the same way we can do that, maybe either with less customers or less of a footprint.
“I know on our end, we are not there yet, but we are moving toward zero use plastic, we are going to have zero trash on tours. We have got to start organising beach cleanups, like at the Khai Islands. If we as an industry are out there using it, why aren’t we out there as an industry cleaning it?” Mr Stenning challenged.
“The government has come out and said, ‘Let’s clean Phuket.’ Well, the Marine Dept and the marine industry has got to come out and say. ‘Let’s clean our islands’ There’s been no one out on those islands for 19 months now and they’re full of trash.
“If we continue to keep Phuket beautiful and the islands beautiful… If we can do that, then the domestic market will remain interested. If the domestic market sees the international market return in a way that is not sustainable, they will not come because it is not beautiful anymore,” Mr Stenning noted.
“Through the school of 19 months of hard knocks and trying to operate to keep our business afloat I think that among the fifth reinvention of my business and the fifth reinvention of how I market my products, the same with all my price points as well, what that has taught me is that if we can solve those three key things, I think we can get to a point where we can survive a pandemic again, because we can fall back onto these three mainstays of our industry,” Mr Stenning concluded.