Vichite Naranong - a Phuket pioneer and successful businessman
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phuket Leisure: Interview

 A Phuket Pioneer

After Shooting the film but before its release, a large grounp of international media personnel visited Phuket. They went to the movie sites and reported Phuket's paradisiacal features to the world. Once the movie was released and with this positive publicity, Phuket earned its place on the map

Khun Vichit Naranong, successful businessman and owner of the Pearl Hotel and the Pearl Village, was one of the pioneers of tourism in Phuket. Born and raised on the island, Khun Vichit has seen Phuket grow from a rural province into an internationally renowned holiday destination. The metamorphosis did not happen overnight. In fact, for those involved in the early tourism industry, the emergence of Phuket onto the international arena was painstakingly slow. In a recent interview, Khun Vichit related his memories of the pioneering days, the collective efforts of a small group of entrepreneurs, the ups, the downs, the rewards and the costs, adding that he loved every minute of it.

"First of all, Phuket was visited by a few Europeans but of course it was not very well known, at least there was no big campaign." Phuket first received international attention through the film industry with a number of Thai films and of course, the blockbuster James Bond movie, The man with the golden gun. "Actually I was the one who invited them to Phuket, I had a few connections and I asked them to come and see the location. They decided right away to shoot the film here."
After shooting the film but before its release, a large group of international media personnel visited Phuket. They went to the movie sites and reported Phuket's paradisiacal features to the world. Once the movie was released and with this positive publicity, Phuket earned its place on the map.

Seeing potential in the tourism market some local businessmen invested money into the initial infrastructure required to sustain a tourism trade, such as hotels, tour operators and bus companies. It was at this time that Khun Vichit built the Pearl Hotel. "People were coming more and more once they knew about the island, but not to a commercial scale." He grimaces at his frustration during that time, "this was just the beginning, there was nothing official from the outside, the TAT and Thai International didn't recognize Phuket's potential. It was like having something sparking off, but with no further effort, it all calmed down again. What could we expect from just one international film? There was no continued effort in trying to do marketing."

With the tourism market as a common interest, Phuket's business people decided to team up for survival. The group believed in the naturally appealing attributes of their island home and realized that if they pooled their resources and embarked on an official promotion of Phuket, they might all be rewarded for their efforts.
"We set up the Phuket Tourists' Association among the local people and voiced an appeal to the government asking for help in bringing Phuket into the international spotlight. We also asked for improved infrastructure and an airport extension."

"At the time, Phuket was serviced only by domestic flights from Bangkok on Thai Airways. There was no communication between Thai Airways and Thai Airways International, which meant that tourists could not book a flight from Paris or London to Phuket. Island bound tourists could only fly to Bangkok and then hope for a seat on a domestic flight."

After years of continuous efforts by the Phuket Tourists' Association, the TAT joined the cause and together they devised a master plan for turning provincial Phuket into a profitable paradise. "Tourist arrivals were increasing but not to the scale we would liked to have see. We continued working and a few years later, the TAT made a master plan for Phuket." Refreshed by their allegiance with the tourism authority, the PTA pushed for actuation of the scheme, only to encounter another brick wall. "We tried to get this plan implemented but somehow the government didn't have any budget."

Ever so determined, the entrepreneurs remained active in fighting for their business and finally, after almost ten years, the government acknowledged the island's potential and approved the campaign. The airport was extended, Thai International started flying to Phuket and the TAT launched a strong publicity campaign on the international tourism scene. This, in conjunction with Thai International's heavy promotion of their new route, succeeded in spreading the word that Phuket was ready for an international onslaught.

"You could immediately tell the difference. The first flight that linked Phuket internationally, flew the route Bangkok - Phuket - Singapore, three days a week. By doing that, we were open to tourists from everywhere, as Bangkok and Singapore were such large airports receiving numerous international flights daily. Singaporean people flooded the city. They came for James Bond Island, great food and seafood, the souvenirs and a good value trip. Most of all they came for good beaches as Singapore does not have that. Hotel occupancy levels were at around 80-90% all year round. Before we used to depend on the weekend tourists from Bangkok who came for the beach, but very few could afford the airfare and to catch a bus down meant that they could only stay one night."

The development of tourism in Phuket may have started slowly but these days the business is flourishing and each season more visitors decide to nominate Phuket as their annual holiday destination. Over the last year Phuket has seen a 13.59% increase in the number of hotel rooms in the 3, 4 and 5-star categories. Construction companies seem to have an endless supply of work, but is it to the detriment of the island's natural beauty, the very thing people seek? Khun Vichit admitted that "of course we prefer things to remain natural but looking at it now, without tourism everyone would be starving. Back then everyone depended on tin mining; all jobs were related to tin mining in some way, whether the company was independent or not." Once the value of tin diminished, tourism filled this role and is now responsible for as much as 80% of provincial revenue. "Look around, wherever you go you'll see something to do with tourism."

For the future of tourism in the Andaman region, Khun Vichit predicts that, "it will expand like a radius, once Phuket has been very much developed, visitors will file into the surrounding area. Places like Khao Lak offer real privacy but of course, we need to try to please everyone. For those who really like privacy they can go there, for those who like to have convenience and international flavour, yet a lot of beautiful nature, Phuket can provide."

Khun Vichit spoke about the imbalance between the development of seaside land opposed to inland areas. "I've just been talking to many people about the strategic planning of Phuket because we need to have some kind of balance in development between the beach and the city. It is a job for both tourism and other economic parties on the island, including health care facilities, schools, sports centres and shopping complexes. More and more foreigners will come to live in Phuket. We already have very good medical care, an excellent international school, all the ingredients you need to cook international food, you don't miss anything! We will try to avoid the pitfalls of other developed islands where over-crowding ruins the peaceful environment."

With all this international influence, some people are concerned for the future of Thailand's charming traditional culture. Khun Vichit believes that the "deep-rooted culture will never be changed. For example, how people live together; the family unit is very strong. Religion will always be an important part of Thai culture and of course our language, nothing can take away our language. We all dress in Western fashion and some Thai people eat Western food, but at the end of the day, they usually prefer Thai food and take pleasure in seeing other people enjoying their cuisine. People come to Thailand to see our culture so there is no reason for us to forget it."

Khun Vichit concluded that Phuket will always be his home, no matter where his travels lead him or how different the island becomes. "Phuket is a truly international island that has a charm of its own with a good combination of sea side features and the terrain is very interesting, it is not monotonous. It is a lively place; the nature is always alive. I feel at home in Phuket."


- *** Issue, 2002

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