This side of paradise

KNOWING when to stop was always going to be Phuket’s problem. Like obese children gorging on fast food, property developers have made a meal of every potential square metre of the island’s best land.

Now Phuket Governor Wichai Praisa-ngob says it’s time for an ”amnesty.” Use of that word is especially appropriate, given the constant, continuing battle between nature and greed.

Bear in mind, though, that resort owners and managers cannot be blamed for the 20 years of carnage that have turned the island from a tropical paradise into a suburb with nice beaches. Indeed, some of the resorts on and around Phuket are fantastic places to stay, and they remain relatively at balance with their surroundings.

But put them all together, add expat and Thai property developers, throw in any number of bar owners, dive shop proprietors and tour operators seeking a piece of the action, and you have a recipe for a large, sprawling conurbation to replace a string of pretty villages.

It’s true that any move now to stem the damage and preserve as much of the old, natural Phuket for as long as possible will be unfair to some propertyholders.

The alternative, though, is far worse. To let Phuket continue to be developed without controls would be unfair to future generations who deserve the chance to enjoy the superb beaches and the beauty of the coral reefs.

In some places, it probably still is the practice of local authorities to value the earth on which there is a building as ”improved” land. And every architect we have met believes that the resort he has just designed for an environmentally-sensitive headland will be an adornment to the landscape.

Yet it was never so, and it never will be the case. Replacing a tinmine wasteland with a lagoon resort playground may help, but even that kind of worthwhile ”improvement” does not restore the mangroves to their original shape.

Muslim islanders around Phuket have seen what has been allowed to happen and have turned their backs on resort developments. It’s certainly true that greed may get to some of them eventually, although it will be slower to happen.

Mostly, these communities have seen the scarring and the lack of respect often accorded to them and their surroundings. They do not want more resorts. They want continuity, not cash.

The same thought has occurred to communities in Phang Nga and Krabi: they have seen Phuket and it is definitely not their idea of paradise. Their ”no-thanks” attitude to jetskis and to beach loungers and tuk-tuks mirrors their broader, equally principled approach to the land itself.

Sadly, it’s too late for Phuket. The island’s rampant development will inevitably bring increasing damage and potentially complete destruction to what once was a wonderful natural asset.

What we’d like to see is a moratorium, an ”amnesty,” for the three provinces, Phuket, Phang Nga and Krabi, because their futures are inextricably linked. Make it harder to open resorts in Krabi and Phang Nga, and try to slow the rate of development on Phuket.

Run a second line north and south along the entire Andaman coast, from the border with Burma to the border with Malaysia. Control future development here, too.

Preserve the 80-metre height limit and force Phuket developers to improve the quality of existing accommodation, so the cycle is towards a true five-star island. Keep Phang Nga, Krabi and the offshore islands low-development: make them a pair of lungs to match Phuket’s urban hub of a heart.

Go ahead with the bid for World Expo 2020 in Greater Phuket, but put the balance between nature and commerce in place first. Instead of being allowed to overdevelop to self-destruction, Phuket, obese and still feeding as though there is no tomorrow, needs to be put on a diet.

At present, there are no rules. Phuket will be completely developed one day, and then overdeveloped the next. There is nobody to say: ”Stop!”

The Governor, to his credit, is trying to say: ”Whoa. The cliff is looming. Maybe we should change direction, my dear speeding out-of-control horses.”

It’s not such a bad idea.

There is one certain limitation on future growth, and that is the ultimate size of Phuket airport. But there is no relationship between the maximum number of tourists that the airport can deliver from 2012-15, and the potential onward and upward growth of resort accommodation. Chaos, here we come.

Any sane measure would also have to control villas and condos, because at present some of these properties fall into the category of undeclared tourist accommodation.

We advocate a fast rail service from Bangkok to Phuket as a means of ensuring Phuket’s capacity to continue to grow as a regional hub, beyond the limits of the airport expansion. But at the same time, rigid rules governing growth in the Andaman are needed to provide that much-needed balance between nature and commerce.

Get it wrong now, and there can be no turning back. The cliff is not that far away.

By Alan Morison Thursday, July 15, 2010 Phuketwan OPINION

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