EDITORIAL: Now’s the time for collective planning

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Tourism must not be the only concern of the rehabilitation plans for the South

Representatives from the hotel and tourism industries in Phuket, Phang Nga and Krabi have been predicting doom and gloom if the number of tourists coming to these areas does not pick up soon.

Cancellations have been high since the tsunami struck on December 26, and many businesses have said that they risked going under if the situation does not improve within the next couple of months at the latest.

The government has performed reasonably well in the aftermath of the tsunami, and will likely be rewarded for its vigorous response to the destruction with a very large number of votes in the February 6 general election.

That’s why it is so unfortunate that no one has not taken the time during the past week to sit down and take a saner and impartial look at the situation in the tsunami-damaged provinces from a strategic national point of view.

For some strange reason, it has so far been left to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) to carry out the important task of drawing up rehabilitation plansfor the affected areas. It should be remembered that the TAT is essentially a marketing organisation, and cannot be expected to think in holistic, national terns.

The tsunami has created an opportunity for the residents of Phuket, Krabi and Phang Nga, the tourism industry and the government – at both the local and national level – to take a hard look at the future of the area. They need to forge a consensus on what the future of the area should look like, whom development plans serve, what can be done to minimise corruption, what steps can be taken to protect the environment, what can be done to ensure an equitable income distribution, and so on. In short, a national strategy should be drawn up.

If the stakeholders don’t take this initiative, top-down decisions will be made – by Bangkok. We know already that the prime minister and his advisers think that the area should be geared towards high-income tourists and become a strategic economic centre. The idea has so far paused at that point without much further scrutiny.

Once some kind of vision for these three provinces can be agreed upon, then subsequent short-, medium- and long-term plans can be drawn up. The money is already available, deciding how to go about spending it will be the challenge. Still, there is an opportunity to move forward with the changes. Before the tsunami, many of the ideas that were floated for the area never made it past the idea stage.

In the short and medium terms, two issues stand out no matter what the long-term vision for Phuket, Phang Nga and Krabi will be. First, there is an opportunity to put in play some kind of rule – which should be strictly enforced – on sustaining the beaches and the general environment. This would require more than just a hard-and-fast set of laws; the participation of the concerned businesses is a must. Simply put, beaches should be left as clean and as empty as possible because this is what attracts tourists in the first place.

Some will be wary of the government’s tendency to favour big businesses, but it should be pointed out that a typical beach can be remain ideal and clean if there is just one or two hotels there with a natural monopoly to deter smaller businesses or even outside visitors from moving in. But this is surely not what the consensus would be because the social tensions surrounding such debates can be overwhelming. A lot more public participation will be required if equality and sustainability are to be achieved in place of exclusivity.

Second, an idea perhaps worth considering would be to make part of Khao Lak into a sanctuary similar to the one for Kanchanaburi’s death railway. This area could serve as a monument which tourists and locals alike could visit to pay respect to the victims of the tsunami as well as to enjoy the sunshine.

Everyone has to accept that this high-profile tourist area bears a permanent scar, so why not transform it into a place of remembrance? Otherwise, all we’ll have is more of the hard-sell, cut-throat pricing and marketing strategies that have for so long dominated other concerns.

In short, everyone would be better off by sitting down together and giving the entire situation a closer look. A good concept based on a broad consensus would put the affected provinces back on track at a much more sustainable pace than simply rushing to boost tourist numbers by hook or by crook.

Now all we need is someone to be put in charge of organising the whole thing.

Published on January 24, 2005

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