PHUKET CITY: Phuket Province and the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) have jointly requested 2.5 billion baht in funding from the central government for construction of the proposed International Convention and Exhibition Center (ICEC) at Saphan Hin – a site still seen by most island residents as inappropriate for such a project. Speaking after a planning seminar at the Royal Phuket City Hotel yesterday, Gov Udomsak Usawarangkura said the ICEC was just the first step in the Phuket Bay (Ao Phuket) Development Plan, a grandiose scheme that aims to transform the city’s muddy eastern shoreline into a high-tech “shopping paradise” featuring marinas, tourist attractions and even a duty-free zone. He admitted, however, that a plan to attract foreign investment though BOI privileges and Customs incentives was still only in the formative stages. A public referendum on where to site the ICEC was held just over a year ago. Of the 250 local government officials, leaders of business organizations and members of the public asked for their opinion, 226 people voted for a site near Tah Chat Chai, in the north of the island. Just 19 people voted for the Saphan Hin site. Among the criticisms of the chosen site: reclaiming land from the sea will be immensely expensive; the location will further exacerbate the worsening traffic situation in Phuket City; the area is a well-known hotbed of teenage gang activity; it is too distant from both the airport and the island’s best hotels; it is incompatible with regional tourism development plans. The decision was also seen by many as indicative of the central government’s failure to take local opinion into account in planning decisions. After making a show of seeking opinion from Phuket residents, the Thaksin government, when faced with the outcome, simply ignored it. At yesterday’s meeting, the Governor addressed some of the concerns of the local people, stating that locating the project at Saphan Hin would help ensure that the island’s tourism development was not focused entirely along the western beaches. He added that the 2.5-billion-baht budget, which has already been submitted to Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, would be enough to cover the reclamation of approximately 400 rai of land from the sea as well as the cost of the 5,000-seat ICEC “and other expenses”. The budget proposal will now be considered by the Cabinet, he added. Gov Udomsak said the government would provide initial funding for the development but wanted the private sector to become involved and would welcome any proposals. He specified the yachting, retail and healthcare industries as examples of those that could benefit the province. Former Phuket Provincial Administration Organization President Dr Prasit Koeysiripong, also at the seminar, said he supported the ICEC plan, and went on to note that Phuket would benefit from establishment of a duty-free zone similar to the one in Johor Bahru, Malaysia.
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