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From the Phuket Gazette:

Despite being a year marked with intense political turmoil and almost daily acts of violence in the Deep South, 2006 marked the resurgence of Phuket’s all-important tourism industry, with the number of tourist arrivals reaching pre-tsunami levels – about 4.7 million visitors were expected by year’s end.

By far the year’s top story was the bloodless military coup in Bangkok on September 19. Combined with the six coordinated bombings of tourist destinations in Haad Yai just three days earlier, this appeared to be a double-whammy for tourism in Phuket. With just six weeks to go before the start of the tourist high season, industry leaders were left thinking, “Oh no, here we go again!”

As it turned out, neither the coup, continuing violence in the Deep South nor travel alerts issued by some foreign governments seemed to have any impact on tourism here. In fact, there was little discernible difference to life in post-coup Phuket, apart from gas stations and shopping centers being allowed to stay open later.

While the words “military coup” might conjure up images of deserted streets after dark, that certainly wasn’t the case this time around, especially in Phuket. Police on the island actually seemed to lighten up on the early closing times imposed on bars during the previous government’s “better social order” campaign.

In fact, despite the official imposition of martial law in the province after the coup, the only place in Phuket with any discernible military presence was at the airport, where some soldiers were briefly stationed immediately after the coup.

But now at the airport, the only disturbance seems to be from the hordes of irritable foreign tourists, who on arrival are forced to queue up and suffer lengthy delays waiting to clear Immigration.

The near-complete recovery was due in part to successful efforts by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), Phuket Tourist Association (PTA) and Phuket Provincial Administration Organization in tapping new markets, most notably “green season” arrivals from the Middle East.

Tourists from that arid part of the world find nothing more exotic than a torrential downpour or pushing a stroller up Soi Bangla, dodging flamboyant ladyboys festooned in fake peacock feathers and high heels. And why not? You don’t get that in Dubai or Damascus.

Another important factor was that it became easier for tourists to get here as 2006 progressed. The year began with tourism industry representatives begging the TAT to do something about the lack of direct flights to Phuket, many of which were canceled due to lack of demand after the tsunami.

Also cut back during those dark days were the number of flights from Bangkok by national carrier Thai Airways International (THAI). But by the end of 2006, the number of carriers using Phuket Airport had increased to a new high of 39. These included newcomers such as Australia’s Jetstar as well as a resumption of direct flights from Hong Kong by DragonAir. With the arrival of high season, so many charter flights began to arrive that finding parking for them all became a problem.

To ensure this year’s high season got off with a bang, the PTA dumped some three million baht into this year’s Phuket Carnival, which was better than ever with a “bikini runway” featuring more than 100 slinky models traipsing along the beach road and great entertainment, including a concert by Modern Dog.

Other high-profile events in 2006 included jet-ski racing in Patong, an FIVB women’s beach volleyball tournament in Karon and the Rubson Raid Turquoise, as well as the usual big annual events, such as the King’s Cup Regatta and the Laguna Triathlon, which was unfortunately marred this year by the death of one competitor from a heart attack.

In Patong, a 195-million-baht project overseen by the TAT to redevelop the beachfront was finally finished, as was a similar project in Kamala, where a tsunami memorial sculpture was dedicated. In another tsunami-related development, the island’s system of warning towers was completed and the first tsunami detection buoy was deployed in the Indian Ocean, courtesy of the US government.

Entering 2007, the Patong beachfront looks better than it did before the tsunami, with lots of smart new establishments along the beach road north of Sawatdirak Rd.

But all of these shopping facilities put together are still dwarfed by Jungceylon, which finally opened in full on December 20, after lengthy delays and legal battles.

Jungceylon is expected to finally transform central Patong, between Rat-U-Thit 200 Pi Rd and Nanai Rd, into a family-friendly tourist attraction rather than the muddy, garbage strewn wasteland much of the project has replaced.

Other positive developments in Patong included the continued success of Soi Bangla’s nightly transformation into a pedestrian’s thoroughfare.

The idea started on a trial basis in 2005 out of concerns that Bangla might be a nice target for terrorists, especially when the US Navy is in town.

But the result has been that with a much wider walking space on Soi Bangla, all the annoying touts operating there are easier to avoid.

Unfortunately, 2006 marked yet another year of no discernible progress on ridding the island of foreign touts. While almost all the touts work illegally, their in-your-face antics somehow continue to go unnoticed by local police, immigration and the labor department – though not by annoyed tourists, who consistently name them as one of the main reasons they won’t be returning to Phuket.

However, 2006 was a miserable year for their low-income earning brethren: foreign laborers working in Phuket, registered and otherwise.

After a year full of news stories chronicling the fate of poor Burmese eking out a living here, a tell-tale report came out near year’s end; when the province announced its intention to impose an 8 pm curfew on their movements and restrict them from such activities as riding motorbikes and visiting shopping malls.

Another major development for Patong came in November, with the announcement that a one-way traffic system will go into effect on a three-month trial basis, starting January 15.

Proponents of the one-way system say it will bring some order to the traffic chaos that prevails in the area. Opponents say it will transform the town’s streets into impossible-to-cross drag strips, forcing all northbound traffic into an unenviable choice between Nanai Rd or the beach road.

Meanwhile, the new Phang Muang Rd, intended to serve as a new north-south artery, remains unfinished.

Unfortunately, there has also been no progress in cleaning up the huge, illegal dump site in the wasteland at the end of Patong’s Soi Nanai 2. In fact, 2006 marked the year when the Gazette began inviting readers to send in photos of illegal garbage dumping in a section of the paper known as “Trashing Phuket”.

While there has been no lack of contributions, not many of the sites have been cleaned up as a result of the exposure. Unfortunately, plans to add a second burner at the island’s only incinerator at Saphan Hin remain on hold, although a glimmer of hope emerged with the opening of a small factory in Tambon Thepkrasatti to transform organic waste into fertilizer.

Also on a positive environmental note, Patong saw the the opening in October of a new 13-million-baht “natural” wastewater treatment plant. Officials hope the facility, which relies on terrestrial plant life to absorb organic waste, will help keep Patong free of the seaweed that has plagued it the past few high seasons.

Buoyed by its resurgent tourism economy, fears that post-tsunami Phuket would fall off the global tourism map began to fade in 2006. As such, all the post-tsunami “lure-them-back-at-all-cost” promotions have faded into memory; it is back to business as usual, which in Phuket sometimes means price gouging.

No part of the Phuket economy is better at it than the transport sector. In late November, a Welshman ended up in the hospital after he refused to pay 200 baht for a ride in a tuk-tuk from Soi Bangla to a hotel on Nanai Rd, just a few kilometers distance. The tuk-tuk driver stabbed him before heading back to Soi Bangla to look for another fare.

Despite altercations between tuk-tuk drivers and passengers being common in Patong, the local municipality has continued to pass over the chance to introduce a public transport system of any kind in 2006, thus demonstrating its continued commitment to the needs of local taxi syndicates over those of visiting tourists.

Among many government officers departed in 2006 was former Phuket Governor Udomsak Uswarangkura, who must still be scratching his head about the fate of over 2 million baht in tsunami aid money stolen by persons unknown from Phuket Provincial Hall back in February 2005 – a matter over which he is still being held nominally responsible, at least by some accounts.

The investigation into that case joins the long list of murder investigations that seem to have been consigned to the “cold case files” in 2006.

The onset of the high season saw the cost of renting a plastic beach chair and umbrella at most island beaches double, from 50 baht to 100 baht. The government has also been jacking up prices, doubling entrance fees at national parks.

For Thais, this entails an increase from 20 baht to 40 baht, but for foreigners the jump is from 200 baht to 400 baht.

While the TAT still hopes to attract 20 million foreign tourists to Thailand by 2008, doubling the 2003 figure, foreigners already living here found 2006 to be yet another year of baffling changes to immigration policy, work permit application procedures and the overall business investment climate.

Resident expats who had been making monthly runs learned that as of October 1 Immigration would begin limiting to 90 days over any 180-day period the length of time foreigners could spend in the country on free “visas-on-arrival”.

After fears that families would be broken up and the Earth would stop spinning as a result of the new policy, it was later clarified that once one’s 180 days were up, all that was needed was to make a trip to a Thai consulate or embassy abroad to apply for a regular tourist visa, for which a fee is charged.

At about the same time, however, most Thai embassies and consulates in the region stopped issuing multiple-entry non-immigrant visas to most applicants.

This made life yet a bit more difficult for foreign residents who want to live here long-term, but can’t afford to become members of the Thailand Elite Card, which offers a five-year, multiple-entry visa and other privileges for bargain price of one million baht.

Also introduced in 2006 at some consulates were new requirements that non-immigrant visa applicants submit WP-3 forms from the Labor Department and letters from the Royal Thai Police confirming they are free of any Thai criminal charges.

Foreigners seeking a lucrative career in the teaching industry also faced increased obstacles in 2006 with the announcement by the Education Ministry that all foreign teachers would be required to hold a minimum bachelor’s degree and undergo strict background checks before they are allowed to enter the classroom.

2006 saw a dramatic decrease in the amount of forest cover in Phuket, much of it replaced with concrete. Work on two new “icons” is still underway. The first is the 45-meter-high Mingkongkol Buddha image atop the Nakkerd Hills in Karon, funded by charitable donations under the “Enhance your merit value in your mind” slogan.

Work on the second project, the OrBorJor’s controversial 46.7 million baht “Gateway,” at the island’s northern tip, is scheduled to open sometime in the first half of 2007.

Other fanciful projects, such as a massive sports complex and a monorail from Phuket City to the airport, remain in the theoretical realm, as does the Phuket Bay Development project and the decades-old plan to build a large international convention center somewhere on the island.

Going into 2007, the island continues to grapple with keeping infrastructure apace with development and the rising population, both of humans and cars.

A desalination plant is almost finished in Karon to turn seawater into potable water, but its operation will likely be delayed for lack of a permit to release the briny wastewater back into the sea.

Along with ever-rising demand for water and slow progress on building two new reservoirs in the province, this increases the likelihood of widespread water shortages in 2007.