Small shops, umbrellas and chairs are now things of the past at major beaches across the nation, thanks to the junta’s clean-up campaign.
Uncertainties remain, though. Once the military-led campaign is over, will the vicious cycle that has been plaguing beach tourism for years return?
“Without the military? Everybody expects things to be [back to]the same again, though it won’t be 100 per cent the same,” said Sanpech Supabowornsthian, president of the Thai Hotels Association’s Eastern Chapter.
Based mainly in Pattaya, he has witnessed the serious efforts at cleaning things up among the private sector. The 2.9-kilometre beach has been cleaner since the campaign started in January, with help from people of all ages and from all walks of life.
As they are required to register and come clean on their business, vendors have agreed to give up some of their street stalls.
Now, every Wednesday, no vendor is seen on the beach, leaving it entirely to tourists. On the other days, shops can open only on specified parts of the beach, leaving other zones free.
The number of business blocks has been reduced to 269, run by 120 operators. These operators are allowed to put their chairs on an overall space encompassing only 1.16km, or 38 per cent of the beach’s length.
According to Sanpech, business operators are now calling on their peers to cooperate in the campaign.
He is also convinced that growing pressure from the media will ensure that the past mess will not return to haunt the resort-city again.
Pattaya is one of the main target areas, along with Phuket and Prachuap Khiri Khan, which are all popular destinations among local and foreign visitors.
The situation is the same in Hua Hin. In March, all stalls were cleared, leaving the beach uncluttered from the Centara Grand Hua Hin to Khao Takieb.
According to Krisada Tansakul, president of the Thai Hotels Association’s Southern Chapter, which covers Phuket, all 14 beaches in the resort-island can again boast their true beauty and have brought back pride to the locals, something that had failed to be achieved over the past 10 years.
Phuket was the first destination falling under the junta’s campaign, which aims also to clear resorts of illegal businesses that have hurt the tourism industry. Unregistered taxis and public vehicles are covered by this aspect of the campaign.
Under the campaign, only 10 per cent of each of Phuket’s beaches can be taken up by businesses, yet the space is being used to locate one-stop service centres, where massage service, food and drink, and water-activity information are provided under one roof.
“All operators are not allowed to hunt for customers on the beach, while tourists are advised to get services from designated centres. Violators will be caught by the police,” Krisada said.
Phuket has been a popular international tourist destination ever since Thai Airways International launched the first flights from Bangkok in 1981.
Within 10 years, the airport reached full capacity and Phuket had earned a reputation as “the fastest-growing resort in the Asean region”. The 2004 tsunami, however, was a major hiccup in the growth.
Though the global financial crisis has more recently resulted in a drop in international visitors, Krisada is convinced that the island will achieve the 12-million visitor target this year, as the high season from October to March should be as busy as ever.
Phuket International Airport’s expansion, scheduled to be completed by the end of this year, should also ensure more arrivals.
In the meantime, however, the average occupancy rate at hotels in Phuket dropped by 15 per cent in April from same month last year.
Krisada does not know whether the situation will revert to what it was in the past and cause further annoyance to all in the province, once the clean-up campaign is over.
But Phuket is gearing up to do its utmost to prevent it from falling into the same old vicious cycle, and The Prince of Songkla University has been assigned to conduct a study on sustainable approaches for the province, he said.
“We’ll know [what paths can be taken]when the study is completed in July,” he added.
Note: This article is part of The Nation’s mid-year special, “A New Face of Thai Tourism”, which will be distributed to all subscribers on June 30 to mark our 44th anniversary.