PHUKET, Thailand ~ Phuket’s postcard-perfect beaches once welcomed masses of backpackers, but the island is rapidly turning into an upmarket holiday spot by becoming Asia’s premier sailing destination.
Phuket is already the crown jewel of Thai tourism, attracting about five million visitors this year – or one-third of all tourists to Thailand.
There are still plenty of spots for backpackers to kick up their heels, but as Phuket’s infrastructure stretches to accommodate all the holidaymakers, the island has begun billing itself as a high-end destination and developing a swath of luxury resorts.
Along with the golf resorts, diving expeditions and luxury spas, sailing is an integral part of Phuket’s strategy – highlighted at the 20th annual King’s Cup regatta in early December.
“The island has five marinas and a total of 800 berths, as well as nearly 200 specialist shops,” said Andy Dowden, founder of the Phuket International Marine Expo, a yachting show held just before the regatta.
Dowden arrived in Phuket 20 years when he sailed in on his own boat and started a chartering company.
In that time, he said Thailand has become “the premier market for water sports in Asia, surpassing even Singapore”.
Thai authorities have actively encouraged that development, lowering taxes on imported yachts, Dowden said. As a result, Phuket now has 15 charter companies with a combined fleet of about 150 boats.
Phuket has some of the “most beautiful moorings in the world and optimal navigation conditions,” Dowden said, adding the island “has everything it needs to profit from nautical tourism.”
Sheer numbers of tourists are still important for the kingdom.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand says 2007 will be another record year for the industry, with 14.8 million foreign holidaymakers bringing 547.5 billion baht (US$1.6 billion) into the country.
TAT’s head Phornsiri Manoharn confidently predicted 2008 would be even bigger, with an expected 15.7 million tourists set to earn the country about 600 billion baht.
In addition to bringing more tourists to Thailand, Phornsiri said the country also wanted to attract tourists who would spend more money.
“TAT will focus on the quality tourist, especially upmarket and niche markets,” she said.
Local officials in Phuket have already begun asking the government to develop tourism in other parts of the country to prevent overcrowding here.
“We have 30,000 hotel rooms in Phuket, with an average annual occupancy of 70 percent. That’s enough,” said Maitree Narukatpichai, director of the Hilton Arcadia in Phuket and president of the Phuket Tourist Association.
The King’s Cup, Asia’s most prestigious regatta, illustrates Phuket’s new strategy.
The event drew in 103 ships, compared to just 20 in the first regatta two decades ago, sailing in the Andaman Sea.
Each ship has about 20 people, including sailors and crew. The roughly 2,000 people who came for the regatta spent about 10 million US dollars, said Rob Kothe, editor in chief of Sail-World.com, an Australian sailing site.
“The King’s Cup has no problem finding big sponsors, property developers or hotel groups who find potential clients on the teams and find the race an excellent way to communicate,” Kothe said.
Inaugurated in 1987 to celebrate the 60th birthday of the King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the annual event takes place during the first week of December and reflects the monarch’s passion for sailing.
In December 1967, King Bhumibol and his eldest daughter Princess Ubolratana finished equal first in the OK Dinghy Division of the Fourth South East Asia Peninsular Games, now known as the South East Asian Games.
In recognition of the king’s prowess as a dinghy sailor, on his 60th birthday in December 1987 he was awarded the International Olympic Committee’s Insignia of the Olympic Order, the only reigning monarch to receive the honor.
Sailing has also driven the development in Phuket of several new luxury properties that include marinas in the compounds. A dormant proposal for an international convention centre in Phuket has also been revived by the minister of tourism.