Six years since the tsunami devastated Phuket’s coastline, the Thai island is reinventing itself as Asia’s playground for the rich and famous.
When the Asian tsunami pounded Phuket’s coastline on Boxing Day in 2004, its tourism industry feared a meltdown. Ever since its palm-lined coves and white beaches were discovered by backpackers in the early 1970s and a few entrepreneurial locals built bamboo shacks on Patong Beach for them to stay, Phuket had been developing as one of Asia’s favourite playgrounds.
Six years after the tsunami, Phuket is booming. “If anything, the tsunami put Phuket on the map,” a hotel manager tells me. “Before [the tsunami], people hardly knew the difference between Thailand and Taiwan. Then for months Phuket was [in the] headlines of every newspaper and TV set in the world. Now everybody wants to be here.”
Even with the stand-off and riots in Bangkok between the government and red-shirt protesters from March to May last year, Phuket’s visitor numbers skyrocketed, with arrivals predicted to reach 3.2 million, a 40 per cent increase on 2004 figures.
The managing director of Hotelworks, Bill Barnett, attributes the boom to the number of low-cost carriers operating from regional cities in Asia. “You can fly direct to Phuket from several Asian cities daily and also Australia,” he says.
There are also direct flights from a number of European capitals, including Paris, Stockholm, Moscow and Berlin.
He says the island’s biggest problem is its infrastructure. “The island isn’t designed to cope with the amount of traffic it has,” Barnett says.
The national government has started zoning areas for development and there are plans to double the size of the airport by 2014 but the island still has little purpose-built infrastructure.
None of this is deterring developers or tourists. There are 32 new hotels with 4600 guest rooms set to open in Phuket and neighbouring Phang Nga in the next two years.
The majority of these projects are mid-range properties with rooms costing $100-$300 a night. But as Phuket’s popularity rises, so do the number of well-heeled visitors. It’s not uncommon to see a dozen or more private jets lined up at Phuket International Airport. The Australian businessman Solomon Lew, New Zealand billionaire brothers Richard and Christopher Chandler and Finnish formula one star Kimi Raikkonen have houses here, though there is no shortage of upmarket villas in which they could stay.
The developer of Hong Kong’s Lan Kwai Fong entertainment district, Allan Zeman, opened a residential estate called Andara in January last year. One of the top villas- a six-bedroom property with infinity pool, a spa, personal cinema, games room, a private chef and views over Kamala Beach – sold for more than $US13 million. One of the estate’s Residence Suites rents for about $US900 ($884) a night, or book one of the 30 villas from $US2750 a night and Andara will send over a chef and waiting staff.
As west-coast properties are snapped up, developers are starting to look to the island’s undeveloped, albeit less-attractive east coast. On a promontory a few kilometres from Phuket Town, the 261-room Westin Siray Bay opened its doors in August. When complete, the nearby Royal Phuket Marina will have 400 waterfront villas and condominiums, a 300-berth yacht marina, a five-star resort and dozens of restaurants and cafes lining a Riviera-style retail promenade. At its heart is Zoran Island, a man-made island capable of berthing super yachts. The marina’s latest residences for sale are four-storey penthouses for $US734,375 and each comes with a private indoor boat berth, spa, indoor and outdoor swimming pools and elevators.
Off the east coast, work is under way on Jumeirah Private Island, a hotel and residential complex on a 32-hectare island. Jumeirah, which has developed Burj Al Arab in Dubai, promises “unparalleled luxury, like nothing else”.
Also on the east coast is The Yamu, a hotel and residential complex flanking a windswept beach, designed by architect Jean-Michel Gathy and featuring interiors by designer Philippe Starck.
With the boom has come inevitable problems. Taxi rage in Phuket is rife, with almost daily cases of violence directed towards tourists who baulk at demands for tips or unknowingly park in an unmarked taxi spot.
“Stepping into a metered taxi is at the top of everybody’s wish list,” Barnett says.
There are dozens of online blogs from travellers complaining that Phuket has grown too big too quickly and that it has lost its “land of smiles” charm in the process. “Phuket’s hawkers, vendors and business owners have to be some of the rudest, crooked and greedy Thais in Thailand,” laments one blogger.
Another writes: “I first came to Phuket in early 1960s on a tin barge from Penang to Phuket. There was no road [or] no modern convenience but life was serene and Phuket was spectacularly beautiful… With the luxurious housing taking over all beachfront properties, the locals no longer picnic and swim like in good old days and the marine life is dying.”
In a country where a bowl of noodles costs about $1 and the average salary is $284 a month, Phuket’s property is out of reach of most local residents. “I simply can’t afford to buy a house here any more,” says my driver, who was born on the island. “Phuket is now just for the tourists.”