Alan Morison: The trouble with Phuket, and how it can be fixed

Alan Morison: The trouble with Phuket, and how it can be fixed

Phuket's tuk-tuk "mafia" is threatening to derail the island's massive tourism industry. We need a solution now

Phuket may be a world renowned beachfront paradise, but there's a less than idyllic debate raging among island leaders right now.

The argument concerns the future of Phuket, and whether it's time Thailand's national government intervened to set the island straight. 

Early last year, in a fascinating experiment, local envoys from about 20 countries began meeting every three months with the Phuket governor and local leaders to identify the problems that tourists experience. Phuket leaders could then take steps to resolve those problems.

The results of the meetings were clear: control the jet-ski scammers, the envoys asked. Stop them ripping off tourists on Patong beach. And please end the tuk-tuk and taxi monopoly control over public transport on the island's holiday west coast, they pleaded. 

More on CNNGo: Bangkok tuk-tuk driver confessions

And with good reason. For years, Phuket's unwanted and largely illegal transport monopoly has been allowed to grow. Hire a tuk-tuk or local taxi on Phuket and you'll pay at least six times what you pay in Bangkok, simply because for a generation, the drivers have been able to bully their way to extortionate fares.  

That bullying occasionally involves intimidation and life-threatening violence. Even luxury cruise liner passengers and sailors from United States aircraft carriers, anchored off Phuket for shore leave, have been subjected to blockades by greedy local taxi drivers. 

 

"I won't be back"

Phuket tuk-tuksHire a tuk-tuk on Phuket and you'll pay at least six times what you pay in Bangkok.Some 18 months on, and the ambassadors of Germany, Britain, Austria and the Netherlands, along with the Australian Government, are now considering issuing travel warnings about Phuket. The reason? 

Nothing has changed. The jet-ski villains are still scamming, and the tuk-tuk and taxi drivers -- the ''mafia,'' as most people call them -- continue to assert what amounts to total control on west coast roads. 

Although most tourists enjoy themselves on Phuket, an increasing number are being put off by the tin-can tuk-tuks, which are not built for comfort or speed. 

As one woman told German Honorary Consul Dirk Naumann: ''A tuk-tuk is OK the first time. But when you have to catch one at those ridiculous prices to leave the resort for lunch and dinner day after day, it all becomes too much. I won't be back.'' 

More on CNNGo: One man's love for historic Phuket Town

Whether anything changes remains to be seen. Some local business leaders have joined the call for low-cost public transport as an alternative to the unnecessarily high levels of traffic on Phuket's roads and the resulting ''motorcycle mayhem'' that needlessly costs too many young lives. 

Fixing Phuket's public transport is at the head of a list of changes that need to come if the island's future as a popular international tourist destination is to be maintained beyond the next few years. 

If nothing is done to give Phuket's holiday coast the kind of effective public transport system found in all truly international destinations, then there is also no hope of protecting the Phuket region's precious natural treasures -- the beaches and coral reefs -- from destruction through the same kind of get-rich-quick greed. 

If that is allowed to happen, the island's great days will be over. And the only people riding in Phuket's tuk-tuks and taxis will be the drivers. 

The opinions of this commentary are solely those of Alan Morison.
Alan Morison is an award-winning journalist and in the wake of the tsunami was one of the few reporters permitted to view the forensic autopsy process aimed at identifying nameless victims. He lives in Phuket and in 2008 founded the regional news and information site, phuketwan.com.
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