by Bill Barnett of C9Hotelworks.com
At the beginning of the year Phuket’s tourism and hotel sector was cautiously optimistic after a strong first half of 2018 and humbling second half. Key terms that kept popping up were Mainland Chinese, Thai Baht Appreciation, Elections and Supply Concerns.
So today, with five months of performance under the belt in 2019 what are the key trends in hotel trading? These can best be compressed in the following points…
• According to data from hotel benchmarking group STR, Thailand remains Southeast Asia’s leading destination for Mainland Chinese, but the gloss is being diminished by Vietnam’s meteoric rise, and strong numbers by the Philippines and Cambodia.
• Market-wide RevPar shrunk by 0.04% in 2018 and flat demand at the onset of the year is now shifting into negative territory moving into February and beyond. Turning back to last year, group demand is falling which is as key concern in a wholesale driven marketplace.
• One stark positive is that RevPar is being propped up by rates and not occupancy. A key takeaway is that in peak and high season, Phuket hotels are able to drive rates up in key periods and continue to do so. This of course is a broad trend. Good hotels tend to perform at higher levels, while poorly managed ones remain subpar.
Getting beyond the numbers, as I speak to hoteliers the expectation is that wholesalers remain a critical component of the island’s hotel industry and despite the expected shift with technology to more direct bookings, the reality is that wholesale models are sensitive to demand volatility and the result of this feeding frenzy most often will be either flat rates for the year or in some cases a retraction.
We expect the remainder of 2019 to be challenging. Some hotels will look at this as an opportunity to reposition, renovate or cut costs. While others will look at new segments, niche offerings or emerging markets like India to regain momentum.
As for the top critical issues facing Phuket hotels, in my opinion these can be distilled in the following Top 3 Things Keep Me Awake at Night…
• Mainland Chinese – If tourism players or hotels believe the damage to Brand Phuket is over, think again. Talking to key tour operators there remains a hangover from last year’s boat sinking incident and travellers remain keenly concerned over safety. Only time and more concentrated promotion will see a return of the numbers.
• Growing Supply and Demand Imbalance – The current pipeline is just over 8,000 keys in development on the island. What’s more concerning is that projects in planning are not represented in this metric, and by our estimate there are approximately 5,000 more keys in planning. While both the pipeline and planning numbers will see some wash, the sum total exceeds current and forecasted demand.
Moreso, the rise of unlicensed condominiums, apartments, houses and villas is continuing unabated and is further exacerbating supply issues. Every time you see a group of tourists renting a 3 or 4 bedroom villa, that’s three or four hotel rooms that lay empty. Government control of unlicensed properties is a key issue facing Phuket’s tourism industry.
• Diminished Natural Resources and Strained Infrastructure – Water tops the list and there is little doubt we are reaching the tipping point with mounting shortages and soaring demand. Electricity is another concern. Lastly is a rising number of vehicles on the road, a urbanising trajectory and slow development of roads and public transport.
To these point’s lets revisit the hotel development pipeline and reflect that a island long term master plan, zoning for new tourism expansion and requirements for developers to invest in public infrastructure to obtain operating licenses is sorely lacking. Something has to give on this front.
In conclusion, am I pessimistic about Phuket’s tourism and hotel future in 2019 and beyond? Absolutely not, direct airlinks are growing and the island has a well-structured capacity for handling tourism, but I firmly believe looking into our problems, discussing and finding ways to resolve these are critical to a sustainable growth pattern.
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