Editor’s note: Alan Morison is an award-winning journalist based in Phuket and founder of the regional news and information site, Phuketwan.com. Chutima Sidasathian is a journalist for Phuketwan.com. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.
PHUKET, Thailand (CNN) — Raddled by allegations of corruption and mismanagement by inept authorities, the Thai holiday island of Phuket looked destined within a few years to have its once-beautiful beaches destroyed by the side-effects of mass tourism.
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Since the 2004 tsunami made Phuket even more of a household name around the world, tourism boosters have catered to sharply increasing numbers of visitors, with the island’s overwhelmed infrastructure deteriorating rapidly.
Bliss for many tourists became a sunbed on the beach where they could alternately loll and dip all day long and be serviced by locals bringing coconut juice or a cocktail, or perhaps even a delicious tiger prawn sandwich.
Such pleasurable indulgence proved exceedingly popular, and some beaches eventually succumbed each tourism high season under a colorful sea of sunbeds.
Along the foreshores at many beaches, illegal businesses sprang up and grew. Beach clubs predominated, but a visitor could spend hours in a beauty salon on the sand or even buy a time-share property.
A constant stream of vendors left tourists little time to snooze. Paradise was evaporating, if it hadn’t already.
Then an odd and unexpected event happened.
On May 22, Thailand Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha assumed control of the country in a military coup following months of political deadlock between opposing sides.
Within 72 hours of taking control, soldiers were on the holiday island, bearing promises to save the beaches and berate the administrators accused of contributing to the island’s simultaneous ride and slide towards increased popularity and ruin.
A few months on, and Phuket continues to shake off the effects of decades of corruption that have been plaguing the island since the 1970s, when the first backpackers discovered the brilliance of the island’s gleaming west coast beaches and locals discovered a new source of income.
Until recently, tales of mafia-connected taxi drivers ruling Phuket made regular headlines, whether it was for charging ridiculously high fares that were six times those of the capital,
Bangkok, or forcing passengers to pay double — not just for the trip to their destination, but also for the cabbie’s ride alone back to his base.
In more extreme cases, drivers threatened violence against those who attempted to use alternative transportation options, as was reported in Phuketwan.
Soldiers on the beach
Today, all that is changing, due to the arrival of khaki and camouflage-clad soldiers.
They tromped Patong, Phuket’s main west coast beach, enforcing the message that the hedonistic days of lazing on sunbeds were at an end, along with the vendors’ privateering ways.
Sand was making a comeback.
Though many Western countries have condemned Thailand’s latest coup, it may just have saved Phuket from further decay — also producing some useful social outcomes for similarly troubled holiday destinations in other parts of the country.
All beaches in Thailand are public space by law. The prohibition of private business operations on these public beaches is without exception, but has been ignored on Phuket and some other tourism destinations.
Restaurants and beach clubs illegally encroached onto the beaches, right down to the high-water mark in some places, too many deriving private profits by ignoring the law and doing as they pleased.
Because Phuket is 860 kilometers south of Bangkok, administrators posted by the central government seemed reluctant to interfere.
Phuket locals interpreted the concept of public beaches as meaning anyone could use them, so first they added sunbeds, then built thatch and bamboo bars on the shore fronts.
Over the years, entrepreneurs joined in, expanding the venues into large restaurants and beachclubs.
Some businesses grew to the water’s edge. There was no enforcement by authorities to force them off the beach.
Once the army took charge, though, local mayor Ma-Ann Samran, of Cherng Talay, says he began receiving daily visits from officers in civilian clothes.
He had no hesitation in admitting he eventually acted to save the beaches in his district out of fear.
”I was genuinely scared,” Ma-Ann said. ”The Army let me know I had to act.”
After decades of local ”law” being applied, the Army transformation came at great speed, within days of the May 22 coup.