Travel

Sailing into the future in Phuket

Despite safety fears after big fire, Phuket has grand plans for marinas

A blaze on a 240-million-baht super­yacht in Phuket may have been put out weeks ago, but worry over its impact on marina businesses is still a burning issue.

The accident on Aug 7 at Ao Po Grand Marina was so severe that it needed a joint team of firefighters and navy officers to save the Lady D, a British-flagged yacht.

The fire was eventually doused, but the 55-metre yacht was seriously damaged.

The incident raised fears over the potential of fires to fan out to nearby vessels and sparked renewed concerns over safety at the marina.

It also erupted at a time when the government is pitting Phuket against Singapore and Malaysia, which already house many marinas and seaports, in a bid to promote the island as an international marina hub.

Owners of marinas in Phuket and tourist operators on this resort island, which is only second to Bangkok in terms of revenue generation, are keeping a close watch on what will happen next.

BOLSTERING SAFETY

Among those in the tourism industry calling for a more professional approach to maintaining safety standards and preventing similar accidents is Phuket Boat Lagoon executive Bun Yongsakun.

“If we want to develop Phuket into a [marina] hub, we can’t ignore safety issues,” Mr Bun said.

He wants the urgent setting up of a rapid deployment team of rescuers ready to tackle accidents almost immediately.

The Lady D incident serves as a good lesson, he claimed. Though police eventually found that a short circuit had caused the fire, what is also important is how long it took rescuers equipped with firefighting equipment to bring it under control.

In this case, they spent almost 24 hours putting out the blaze, a timeframe that has been widely criticised ever since.

According to investigators, the yacht was moored at the far end of the Ao Po Grand Marina pier when the fire broke out. This made firefighting operations difficult.

There was also a question over the availability of fireboats at the time.

In response, the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation of the Interior Ministry has signalled its intention to establish emergency response teams across Phuket with four stations at four piers — Ao Chalong, Ao Po, Choeng Thalay Bang Tao, and Patong. Each station will have a patrol vessel, a fireboat and a rescue boat with a first-aid medical care facility.

But while these plans read well on paper, Praphan Khanphrasaeng, head of the department’s office in Phuket, admits that the fireboat procurement has yet to be approved by the Budget Bureau despite there currently being thousands of tourist vessels on the island.

The 50-million-baht request remains “under consideration”, he said.

“We need international safety standards to boost tourist confidence,” believes Sarayut Manlam, president of the Tourism Council of Thailand’s Phuket branch.

It is not just firefighting equipment we need, officials need to draw up more specific plans regarding kitting out the emergency vessels with medical equipment that might be necessary on the scene of an accident, especially one that occurs at sea, he suggested.

SEEKING GLOBAL RECOGNITION

If these safety issues are settled, Phuket can develop into a major marina hub, local authorities believe. The resort island possesses this potential due to its docking facilities and tourism attractions.

At present, there are a total of 38 ports on the island, five of which serve as yacht docks. Four marinas, located in the Northeast of the island, are operated by private companies.

ship shape: Two workers at Phuket Boat Lagoon in tambon Koh Kaew of Phuket’s Muang district help clean up a moored yacht.

They are Phuket Boat Lagoon, which can serve 173 yachts and 135 others on the ground for repair work, Royal Phuket Marina 76 and 35 and Ao Po Grand Marina 300 and 100.

Phuket Yacht Haven can accommodate 300 yachts at sea only.

With 1,500 yachts and cruisers visiting Phuket annually, businessmen are increasingly interested in capitalising on the island’s popularity with boat owners and tourists and are conducting a feasibility study on new docks.

“Between two and three new marinas are expected to open at Ao Po, Ao Kung and Ao Makham in the future,” Phuket Marine Office Wiwat Chitchoetwong said, referring to new development projects in the island’s three key bays.

At Ao Makham in particular, the government also plans to develop it into a deep water port so that it can serve large cruisers.

Ports in Singapore and those along the Strait of Malacca like Portklang, Malacca, Penang and Langkawi in Malaysia are Phuket’s main potential competitors, but there is growing confidence that the island can compete.

Phuket, nicknamed the Pearl of Andaman, is home to both natural and man-made attractions. Its scenic beaches like Patong are a big draw while the ancient Sino-Portuguese buildings in the city are popular among tourists fascinated by this architectural style.

Yacht travellers also like Phuket and use it as a home port for further trips to the Phi Phi islands and Ao Phangnga Marine National Park in neighbouring provinces, Mr Wiwat said.

TOURIST CASH UP FOR GRABS

More than 15 million tourists visit Phuket every year and many of them arrive at the resort island by yachts and cruisers. Marinas and related businesses generate over twenty billion baht a year.

Visitors who arrive on yachts and cruisers often have plenty of money to spend during their stay on the island, Mr Wiwat observed.

In the high season, they use Phuket as a base for travelling to nearby attractions, while in the low season they dock their yachts at marinas before flying back to their home countries, mostly in Europe and Australia.

“Some tourists even travel across the ocean past Singapore and Langkawi in order to stay in Phuket,” Mr Wiwat said, adding that about 1,200 yachts visit Phuket each year.

“Today more people are buying yachts, many worth five million baht or more, as they view the boats as a way to diversify their travelling experience,” Mr Bun said. “Marinas offer great potential for Phuket because we don’t have pirates and sharks!” he joked.

What the government should do is to ensure a safe environment and work to implement policies that will drive marina and yacht businesses, Mr Bun stressed.

If successful, the authorities can use the measures as a model for marinas at Surat Thani’s Samui resort island in the Gulf of Thailand and Chon Buri’s Pattaya on the eastern coast.

WRITER: ACHADTHAYA CHUENNIRAN

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