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New limo service sparks strike at airport

Legacy Phuket Gazette

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MAI KHAO: While Phuket Mai Khao Company launched its airport limousine and minibus service at Phuket International Airport yesterday morning, some 100 drivers and other staff of the Phuket Limousine and Business Services Cooperative (PBC), which already operates limos and minibuses at the airport, staged a five-hour strike in protest of the new concession.

However, few passengers were inconvenienced as there were few incoming flights during the strike, from 7 am until noon.

The PBC members demanded that Airports of Thailand (AOT) allow the PBC to operate more vehicles under a new concession.

The new service operated by Phuket Mai Khao Co was able to handle most of the passenger load, with the remainder gladly served by the 42 metered taxis that maintain a booth outside the main terminal.

However, the arrival of the new limo operator at the airport offers no relief from high fares because the company is charging the same rates as those offered by the PBC.

Until yesterday, the PBC was the only transport operator allowed to have a booth in the arrivals terminal. Now, both concessionaires are operating almost side-by-side, separated only by a small kiosk.

Somboon Jumpathong, managing director of Phuket Airport Group, which runs the new service through Phuket Mai Khao Co, told the Gazette that his company had won the right to operate 20 cars and 60 vans in a public bidding on December 30.

The company launched yesterday with 16 cars and 30 vans and is awaiting delivery of more new vehicles to fill its quota, he said.

“About 30% of our drivers are employees. The remainder are drivers who have joined us using their own cars,” he said.

“We have to pay 830,000 baht a month for the concession. The contract, signed on January 17, allowed us to start today [January 24],” K. Somboon said.

He added that he would not appose any move by AOT to increase the number of vehicles the PBC would be allowed to operate.

“If the PBC is allowed the same number of vehicles [150] they were formerly allowed to operate, it would not be a problem for us. Business means competition, so we will just do our best and play by the rules,” he said.

The PBC’s former quota of 110 cars and 40 vans was to be slashed to 90 cars when the new service went into operation – yesterday.

The AOT slashed the number of vehicles the PBC was allowed to operate following many widely-publicized customer complaints that PBC limousine drivers were speeding, and that its minivan operators were stopping on the bypass road where passengers were routinely forced to wait while being pestered by touts pushing a variety of goods and services – hotel reservations, package tours, etc.

The PBC claimed that the latter practice ended in August last year with the launch of separate minivan services for Phuket City and destinations along the southwest coast, along with a promise by the PBC to punish any drivers who continued the abuse.

However, PBC President Niphon Piromrit told the Gazette that the strike was prompted by AOT’s refusal to give a clear answer as to whether the PBC’s quota would be returned to 150 vehicles, as requested.

“We just want our quota back at 150, but the AOT still insists on limiting us to just 90 cars. As for the complaints, we are now in the process of improving our services, but it seems the AOT doesn’t care about that,” K. Niphon said.

He added that he felt sorry the AOT did not care about the welfare of the PBC drivers. All PBC drivers own their vehicles and are subject to high co-op membership fees in order to pay concession fees, K. Niphon said, adding that under the concession that ended on June 30 last year, the PBC paid AOT about 1.2 million baht a month.

The PBC has yet to sign the new agreement and has been working under a verbal agreement since then, paying AOT 877,000 baht monthly.

The strike ended following discussions between K. Niphon, Phuket International Airport (PIA) Deputy Director Visutr Chantana, Phuket Provincial Transportation Office Chief Chanchavarn Ngamtap and Tah Chat Chai Police Superintendent Sakchai Limcharoen.

“Yesterday we talked to the authorities of PIA, but no one could give us an answer. They said they had to wait for an answer from the AOT board in Bangkok. We are just local people who have formed a group together. We are not rich. Some of our members still have to work to pay [car] lease payments,” he said.

K. Niphon said that he is expecting a call from Bangkok. In the meantime, the PBC would continue to operate all 150 vehicles as usual, in order not to inconvenience tourists, he said.

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Tourism

Phuket’s Lard Yai Sunday night market springs back to life

The Thaiger

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Phuket’s Lard Yai Sunday night market springs back to life | The Thaiger
PHOTO: Lard Yai springs back to life - Phuket People's Voice

The Lard Yai Sunday night walking street along Thalang Road Old Phuket Town has reopened to the delight of vendors, locals and a few expats. It has been closed for 3 months after lockdowns were applied to community markets.

New Provincial Governor Narong Woonchiew says he welcomes people back to the popular market.

“The province and the private sector have worked hard to make sure Lardyai walking street is safe and complies with social distancing practices to regain tourists’ confidence.”

Lard Yai, a fairly recent addition to Phuket’s vibrant market scene (about 4 years ago), became an instant success in amongst Thalang Road’s famous renovated historic Sino Portuguese shop houses. It attracted a healthy mixture of the local Phuket Town community, expats and visitors who appreciated the authenticity and unique nature of the market. There’s always a feast of music, great local food and trinkets, always evolving. The shops lining the streets are also joining in.

The Phuket governor says the browsing and walking areas have been made larger to allow crowds to adhere to social distancing during this Covid era. Vendors were invited to attend special instructional lectures before the market re-opened educating them about making the market safe.

“The activity was funded by Phuket Municipality’s Health Insurance Fund and aimed to promote the new normal in tourism to revive the province’s economy, which has been severely affected by the outbreak.”

Phuket Mayor Somjai Suwansupphana says the Lard Yai shopping district is more than 100 years old and covers the stretch along Thalang, Yaowarat, Krabi, Deebuk and Phuket roads.

“Surrounded by historic buildings with traditional Thai architecture, Lardyai was designated a Fine Arts Conservation Zone by the government back in 1992 and received the Asean Sustainable Tourism Award in 2018,” s

The Lard Yai walking street is now open every Sunday from 4pm to 10pm. Get to Phuket Town and ask the locals – they all know where it is. (Come by motorbike or taxi, you won’t find a place to park your car without a walk)

Phuket's Lard Yai Sunday night market springs back to life | News by The ThaigerPhuket's Lard Yai Sunday night market springs back to life | News by The Thaiger

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Opinion

Two years ago – remembering Phuket’s Phoenix boat tragedy

The Thaiger

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Two years ago – remembering Phuket’s Phoenix boat tragedy | The Thaiger

“There were 13 children that died in this disaster. Many were later found dead, floating face down, not far from their deceased parents.”

On an otherwise ordinary afternoon, two tour boats, Phoenix and Serenata, were heading back to Phuket after a half day tour of snorkelling near Koh Racha. The weather forecast was for seasonal monsoonal SW winds and waves, about the usual for that time of the year.

But there was also a weather warning for a storm later in the afternoon of July 5, 2018. For whatever reasons the captains of the two vessels started heading back to Phuket despite the warnings or perhaps in full ignorance of them. Even a look to the SW horizon would have indicated some poor weather was on the way.

Two years ago - remembering Phuket's Phoenix boat tragedy | News by The Thaiger

The tour boat Phoenix, as it appeared in promotional websites

Zheng Lancheng had travelled from China with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and 18 month old granddaughter for a trip to the tropical southern Thai island. Phoenix was carrying 101 passengers – 89 tourists, all but 2 were Chinese, 11 crew and a tour guide.

As the boats were off Koh Hei, south west of Phuket, a storm front, now looming large as it approached (a radar screenshot had even been posted by The Thaiger about 30 minutes before the tragedy), reached the two boats whipping up waves. The height of the waves was reported to be up to 5 metres by the Captain of Phoenix (but were more likely around 3 metres).

A boat of the size of Phoenix, in capable hands, should have handled the conditions, whilst uncomfortable for the passengers, with relative ease.

But Phoenix wasn’t just a standard purpose-built 29 metre diving boat. It had some major design and construction flaws which would contribute to the death toll on the day. Loose concrete blocks had been placed into the boats bilge to provide ballast and stability. These concrete blocks would shift as the boat started capsizing and make a bad situation worse. The boat had one watertight door, it should have had four. And the windows, smashing when the water hit them, were not marine-grade glass.

More about the boat’s shortcomings HERE.

Mr. Zheng and his family didn’t know what was going on. The boat was ‘shaking’ and passengers, although remaining silent, were ‘clearly frightened’. Suddenly the boat started lurching and tipping over. People started screaming. Most were still below decks because of the rain. Few were wearing life vests or bouyancy vests. Mr. Zheng, above decks with his family, held on to his wife but her knee had been injured. Suddenly he was in the water. Eventually many of the survivors would be found to be wearing non-compliant bouyancy vests.

He later told police there was no warning, no advice from crew beyond ‘Get out’.

Other witness reports say that the Thai crew and Captain, all saved on the day, were the first to get off the boat leaving more than half the passengers below decks and many other floundering around in the water.

Mr. Zheng struggled onto one of the life rafts, dragged in by other bewildered passengers. By this stage the boat had sunk.

“There were no words between any of us in the rubber boat. All of us were stunned. We could only hear the sounds of the sea.”

Mr Zheng said if they had known there would be a big rubber boat floating around after their boat sank, they might have first put on life vests and jumped in the vicinity to be saved.

“However, we knew nothing about it. No one gave us any warnings or guidance.”

There were 13 children that died in this disaster. Many were later found dead, floating face down, not far from their deceased parents. In total, 47 people died as a result of the Phoenix sinking.

The other boat, Serenata, had also sunk off Koh Mai Thon but its 42 passengers were all rescued.

In the days following there were countless missteps and mishandling by Thai officials and politicians. Among them the Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan pushing the blame onto the boat’s ‘real’ owners saying the situation was just “Chinese killing Chinese”, alluding to the early revelation that the boat was really owned and funded by Chinese who merely had a Thai ‘shelf’ company to comply with the law.

“Some Chinese use Thai nominees to bring Chinese tourists in. They did not heed warnings, which is why this incident happened. This needs to be remedied,” Prawit said.

But what warnings? The boat had been ticked off, approved and registered by Thai Authorities. Clearly unsuitable for its designed purposes, the vessel had been able to conduct tours with paying customers – all under the watch of Thai marine officials. For all the finger pointing and shifting of blame, the cause of the deaths lay fairly and squarely at the feet of the Thai authorities, the Thai Captain and Thai crew who had it within their entire control to avoid the loss of life.

Then, the final insult, as the Thai Government tries to auction off the wreck of Phoenix saying they needed to pay for the storage fees at the Rasada shipyard where the broken relic still sits.

Read our editorial about the auction HERE.

Two years later and the fallout can be properly measured. Probably the most obvious is the drop in Chinese tourism (which was already languishing before the coronavirus pandemic stated). Chinese social media savaged the handling of the entire Phoenix ‘situation’ and was candid in recommending that Chinese tourists avoid Phuket and Thailand in the future. And that, in part, has happened.

Phuket’s Chinese tourist flow dropped dramatically, up to 30-50% year on year (based on hotel bookings, tour bookings and airport arrivals). There was also a drop in Chinese patronage for the rest of Thailand although the Thai government stepped up measures to keep the numbers rolling on, including the waiver of the visa-on-arrival fee and special ‘Chinese only’ immigration queues.

From a media point of view, Phuket largely ‘dodged a bullet’ as the world’s media was focused on the ongoing drama at Tham Luang Caves, luckily with a much happier ending (the rescue of the 13 young men from the caves in Chiang Rai). The Phoenix boat tragedy was not as widely reported as it would have been normally.

But Phuket’s reputation had been wounded. The stench of the unnecessary 47 deaths has tarnished the island’s ‘tropical playground’ sales point and will hang over the island for years, especially in the minds of Chinese visitors.

Last year the Phuket Governor said there would be no memorial for the 47 lost lives “because no one wants one”. He also told The Phuket News last year that the Chinese government and Chinese tourists now had more confidence in the safety of tourism in Phuket because the number of Chinese tourists travelling to Phuket has increased steadily after the incident (but never reached anywhere near the same popularity).

His misinformed comment, unchallenged by Thai reporters, bore no resemblance to the facts or explained hotel occupancies in Phuket sitting at record lows and the absence of the earlier throngs of Chinese travellers pre-Phoenix disaster.

Tow years later, the weather in Phuket is fine, with moderate winds, cloudy skies and a temperature of 31 – a perfect day for a tour off Phuket’s coast to one of the many, many islands (except there are very few boats running at the moment).

Now Phuket faces an existential threat to its tourist business – a tiny virus that has shut down the island’s tourism almost completely – that will be even more complex to survive than the Phoenix boat disaster. But the island has survived numerous hits in the past and, somehow, is able to rebuild following the disruptions.

Two years after that fateful day off the south east coast of the island Phuket is a very quiet place indeed.

Two years ago - remembering Phuket's Phoenix boat tragedy | News by The Thaiger

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Coronavirus (Covid-19)

Thailand targeting specific Chinese provinces for “tourism bubble”

Jack Burton

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Thailand targeting specific Chinese provinces for “tourism bubble” | The Thaiger
PHOTO: Travelwire News

Thailand’s minister of tourism and sports says his ministry will target specific provinces in China in a bid to attract tourists back to the resort island of Phuket as travel restrictions are gradually eased. Pipat Ratchakijprakarn says the ministry will not splash out money launching a tourist campaign all across China but rather target some of the many provinces that have brought Covid-19 under control.

He didn’t specify which provinces, but said Phuket is being eyed to lead the planned “tourism bubbles” comprising Thailand and its selected partners. The primary target is selected Chinese cities and provinces.

“China is the first market with potential, because flying time to Thailand is less than six hours.”

Other markets being discussed include South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and some south east Asian countries.

Before the pandemic, 1 in every 4 foreign visitors to Thailand was Chinese. There were almost 40 million foreign arrivals last year.

SOURCE: Bangkok Post

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