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The Transformation Into a “New Phuket” – Profit and Progress Versus Conservation and Environmentalism?

As the jewel in the crown of Thai Tourism, Phuket receives more than its fair share of both national and international publicity.

May 2024

As the jewel in the crown of Thai Tourism, Phuket receives more than its fair share of both national and international publicity. As its popularity and population grows, and as its revenue correspondingly surges, the island is attracting ever increasing attention throughout the corridors of power in the capital.

The authorities certainly have huge plans for the future. But such rapid development may also come at a cost, as progress undoubtedly comes with a multitude of environmental challenges.

Phuket has been on an ongoing march forward towards modernisation, in earnest, for the past 15 years. It was only a decade and half ago that we had no underpasses, no Central Malls, no water parks, one cinema in the old Robinson’s in Phuket Town, limited internet in many parts of the island, and a choice of only three international schools (now 14). Many roads that people drive on around the island today didn’t even exist back then.

The change has been quite astonishing. But even after the transformation of the last decade or so, the island is now expected to go through another major transformational period in the years ahead.

It is easy to see why Phuket has the attention of the Thai government. In 2023 Phuket generated revenue of nearly 400 billion THB. This is over US$10 billion, not a paltry figure.

Elected to office in August 2023, the new Thai Prime Minister, Srettha Thavisin, has already made numerous trips to the island since being sworn in. With recent pledges to invest billions of Thai Baht, and with mega projects being given the green light, the island certainly seems to be on a fast track for a major transformation. Alleviating traffic congestion is one focus, bolstering tourism another, as well as a conscious effort to devise a game plan for diversifying the island’s economy.

The interest in the island is not just coming from a local or national level, but also on an international level. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) released a document in November 2023 titled: “Phuket Sustainable Transformation Vision and Strategy” and talks of a shared vision for a “New Phuket”.

Plans for Phuket to become a SMART City is not a new concept, having been around for many years now. And most people these days are familiar with the UN’s Agenda 2030, which will mean a stronger focus on green infrastructure, as well as addressing climate change issues and carbon reduction.

The 82-page in-depth report encourages Public Private Partnerships (PPP’s), joint ventures between the government and private corporate entities. Residents should not be surprised to hear that at some stage in the future corporate titans like Blackrock may at some stage play a hand in the transformation of Phuket Island. Larry Fink, CEO of Blackrock, expressed his interest in Thailand after meeting the Prime Minister in September, 2023, at the UN General Assembly meeting in New York.

The above may mean many things to many people, but either way, these changes are coming swift and fast. Phuket’s transformation seems likely to continue at the same pace moving forward, in line with Agenda 2030 and even embracing the 4th Industrial Revolution (Thailand 4.0), as revealed by Knight Frank all the way back in 2016.

Phuket certainly needs some investment into its infrastructure. Thailand is expecting 36 million tourists in 2024, and around one third of these will visit Phuket. This is getting very close to the previous high water mark of 38 million, set in 2019.

As we have previously discussed, the tourist industry is inextricably linked to the real estate sector. The huge development taking place across the island and the record sales of real estate in 2023 is testament to this. With a multitude of new projects across the island (villas and condominiums), this makes some of the issues the island faces even more significant. As these thousands of new villas and condo units come into fruition, all of them will eventually find new owners and/or tenants. This is going to put considerable pressure on the island’s infrastructure.

Thailand still has around one third of its land mass covered in forest. But because we are on a small island with a rapidly growing population, the changes are much more readily apparent. According to World Population Review, Phuket’s population has nearly trebled since the tsunami in 2004, and this is still on an upward trajectory.

Once upon a time the island had wild elephants and Sumatran rhino, and was teeming with wild boar. There were bear cats, civet cats, gibbons, mouse deer and the seas surrounding Phuket Island were brimming with marine life. Today, only the 22 square kilometres of Khao Phra Thaeo Wildlife Park remains a sanctuary.

It is amazing to think that the last tiger was shot and killed in the foothills of Kamala in the year 1974, seven years after the Sarasin Bridge had already opened for use. This was the era of backpackers, who had already been arriving for a decade or more. The first 5-star hotels had also started to appear during this timeframe.

There’s no question that tourism over the past 30 years has been economically beneficial for Phuket. But there has certainly been a price inflicted on the island’s natural surroundings. We have touched before on the term “extractive tourism”, coined by the academic Vijay Kolinjivadi, who argued that locals should be compensated more for the destructive nature of tourism. Kolinjivad believes everything is compromised for the desire for profit, with no focus on the well being of the local population or, more importantly, ethical agendas to protect the natural environment.

The turtles who must have laid their eggs in the thousands on the west coast beaches, now do so in pretty abysmal numbers. The seas around Phuket were once rich with Blue Marlin, Sailfish and Dorado, but it just isn’t what it used to be.

If Phuket is heading into a new transformational period to create a “New Phuket”, we can only hope there is a conscious effort to achieve some degree of balance between that of progress and that of protecting what little is left of the island’s astounding beauty and wildlife.