Sun, Sea & Sumptuous Seclusion

Franck De Lestapis may be managing one of Thailand’s best hotels, but that holds little advantage unless people know the destination first. “We have to sell the destination first before we can sell the resort,” says de Lestapis. “We have to explain where Ko Lanta is and why it’s a great place. It’s not easy; it’s even hard to lure representatives of travel agents to Ko Lanta.”  

 

The resort, called Pimalai, is certainly impressive; the plush pool villas, clinging to a steep mountain slope, offer sweeping vistas of the Andaman Sea. And the destination itself is rewarding; the island has sparsely-developed beaches, a forested and hilly interior, and a ruggedness that makes it feel fresh by Thai standards. Yet the same can be said of other emerging destinations along Thailand’s Andaman Coast, whether that’s a new island or a new stretch of coast developing tourist infrastructure. All promise the same thing – all have swanky resorts that command enviable beachfront territory that basks in seclusion and tranquility; all have their own corner of the unspoiled tropical paradise, and as such all are vying for the same slice of the market and expecting to become the next big thing. And therein lies De Lestapis’ challenge: how to lure clients to his patch, and, equally important, how to entice staff to work at the hotel he manages. “Experienced staff can find so many new hotels that it’s hard to get them to work here, which they see as being out of the way,” told me De Lestapis. “When we opened the resort in 2001 we had 20% of our staff from Lanta; now that’s grown to 50%, and that’s because we can’t find enough people to employ from outside the island.”  

 

In this situation, with new resorts popping up like sand castles, talk of the next big thing often proves to be premature hype, as Duane Lennie found out. Lennie has a dayjob with a real estate company in Phuket, and two personal ventures (a website about tourism in Ko Lanta and now a boutique hotel at Lanta’s old town). “Eight years ago I was writing that upmarket tourism in Ko Lanta was going to explode,” said Lennie. “Nowadays, I’m still making the same forecasts, and still it hasn't happened in the big way everyone expected. Mind you, there are luxury resorts now, and they draw tourists on the strength of their own marketing machinery, but most tourists here are still normal people who want to spend their holiday in an affordable beach. Ko Lanta’s strength remains as it was: an affordable and idyllic tropical destination.”  

 

Affordability is of course relative; the push is certainly upmarket, as I found during my extensive research for this article. I travelled hundreds of kilometres along Thailand’s Andaman Coast to check out the new spate of destinations and resorts, and analyse the evolution and renewal of region’s tourist industry that everyone raves about. And the upmarket thrust is one of the discernible trends – virtually all new accommodation outfits fall into the higher scale brackets. Thailand’s tourism authority is even now saying that raising the yield of the tourists is more important than raising the numbers, and so are the hoteliers. Yet a question posits itself: if the number of tourists doesn’t increase to catch up with the increase in number of beds, how can all the new hotels expect to fill their rooms? This is another discernible trend: most of the new resorts are struggling to reach, or maintain, an occupany that hovers at around fifty percent. “Volume is less important than yield,” De Lestapis argued when I asked him about what he could do to raise the level of occupancy. “It’s better to have occupancy of 65% with a high yield than 90% with a low yield.”  

 

Better still would be to have high occupancy and high yield, but that’s unattainable given the inexorable increase of beds, which is far ahead of the demand. On the other hand, talking about numbers misses the point. For the business rationale driving new developments is the dynamism of tourist movements in Thailand displayed by both Thai and foreign travellers. A high proportion of tourists travel independently, and visit Thailand repeatedly (up to fifty percent are repeat visitors, although these figures are particularly and artificially high as many backpackers use Thailand as a hub during their extended travels around the region). In any case, independent travellers or repeat visitors move around to see different places, especially emerging destinations; all the hotel managers I spoke to are focused on capturing the whims of this market. Indeed, direct bookings in Thailand are comparatively high, and that’s something that gives encouragement to new hotels.   

 

“We get most of our bookings online, made by independent travellers,” told me Michael Vogt, manager of Layana Resort & Spa. “Thirty percent of bookings are directly through out website.” Opened three years ago, and well-positioned as the only upscale resort in Ko Lanta’s longest beach, Layana’s fifty rooms have all the five-star trappings without extra frills. Instead, the management focuses on the service. “We’re small, upscale and set right on the beach, and our emphasis is on giving personal attention to guests; we take care of the small details and we like to surprise guests,” elaborated Vogt. “So we offer good value, good prices, and guest satisfaction – that’s the brand we have built.”  

 

Other new properties are also finding their own niche in a market that is stratified, diverse, and mature. Aleenta Resort & Spa, situated north of Phuket in Phang Nga province, is the first luxury resort on Natai beach. Thanks to innovative design, it started with a bang, its design eulogized in several leading travel magazines, and it has continued to bolter its reputation with concepts such as the Chef’s Table – a multi-course daily-changing dinner of creative French dishes. It’s also strategically situated to tap into the growing fame of Natai beach, which is emerging as one of the hottest new real estate spots in Thailand. The long beach-front is rapidly filling up with luxury villas, and this includes Villa Beyond, an expansive estate that is on the market for US$25 million, possibly the most expensive house in Southeast Asia.  

 

At the other end of Phuket, in Krabi province, five hotels have sprouted up in recent years in Tubkaek Beach. The latest of them, the Amari Vogue Resort, opened in November 2007. “It’s a new area that has been discovered, and everyone wants part of the action,” said Martin Kunzmann, the assistant manager. “Forty-four villas are due to be built next door to us, and that should be the last development here as then the rest of the area north falls in a National Marine Park. Our advantage here is that we are in a secluded and beautiful beach, appealing to visitors looking for tranquility and new destinations.”  

 

With just 57 rooms, the hotel is presenting itself as a boutique resort. The design lends itself to boutique branding; the rooms are rich with wooden paneling, parquet floors, bright colours, and fanciful paintings of elegant Thai motifs. Another allure, for residents and non-residents, is the beachfront Italian restaurant. Yet the greatest innovation is found in the two Spa Suites: expansive suites embedded in the spa, with the hush solemnity and fragrances reminiscent of the interior of a temple or church. “We have developed a spa package specifically geared for guests residing in the Spa Suites,” told me Nikki Busuttil, director of communications at Amari’s head office. “In this way, the Sivara Spa is a central feature of Amari Vogue Resort. The spa has spacious treatment rooms, including an extravagant VIP treatment room with Vichy shower, and it offers a high quality of service and highly trained therapists, a place for escape and renewal.”   

 

Renewal is the name of the game, driven by tourists looking for new places or new experiences, and although renewal is often taken to mean new destinations, it doesn’t mean that the established spots, like Phuket, are being elbowed out of the radar. Phuket continues to hold a magnetism on the basis of its fame, centrality, accessibility, and strengthening of its product. Long experience means that Phuket retains the edge when it comes to qualitative offers. Besides, it’s now one of the world’s premier retirement destinations, especially in the upmarket stakes. “There are now more than 100 real estate developers in Phuket,” told me Lennie, whose day-job is with Indigo, an agent for USD$1-million-plus homes. “So the market for luxury housing in Phuket is now well-established, and Phuket draws retirees due to its superlative infrastructure – it has hospitals, spas, golf courses, all manners of shops, and an international airport.”  

 

One of the top golf courses is at the Laguna, whose vast grounds hold a cluster of luxury hotels, including the Banyan Tree Phuket, which is the best of the lot and whose lobby is across the street from the entrance to the golf course. The Banyan Tree has been successful at attracting diners to its excellent restaurants, and now they have added another restaurant, called Tre, dedicated to exquisite French-Vietnamese fusion food, still an original genre of cuisine in Thailand. “We want to develop distinction in our dining experiences,” said Francois Huet, the general manager. “So instead of opening a steakhouse or another Thai restaurant, we wanted to offer something different in Tre. The restaurant is also in tune with our philosophy as a hotel: nowadays tourists are looking for unusual experiences, something they can’t have at home, and our dining concepts are designed to provide that.”  

 

The resort itself is something of a self-contained destination. The grounds are defined by large, contagious lagoons popular by fish and white egrets, and the villas are scattered among trees that reverberate with the calls of doves and warbles of passerines. The villas are private and luxurious, all with their own pools, and now the hotel has launched a higher class of accommodations, the Double Pool Villas, which have large pools outback and glass-walled bedrooms surrounded by water. “We wanted to create a romantic mood in the new villas,” said Huet. “The villas are designed to blend with nature. We’ve had people spent three months staying in the villas, working from the villas.”  

 

Renewal is also taken to mean environmental rejuvenation. There is urgency in this: coral reefs are being degraded by insensitive diving and overcrowding; illegal fishing (particularly trawling) remains a problem; the tsunami damaged many reefs; and new resorts are encroaching into many remaining stretches of beach forests and untouched beaches. “We have been trying to protect turtles for forty years and they are still declining,” lamented Kanjana Adulyanukosol, an official at the Phuket Marine Biology Centre (PMBC), an organ of the Thai government that falls under the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources. Another official, Dr Nalinee Thongtham, told me that stopping the destruction of reefs “requires the cooperation of everyone involved – land developers, resort operators, diving operators, tourists, fishermen and the general public.” 

 

Resorts are responding to some extent, and that’s partly because, in the words of David Campion, corporate social responsibility manager at Banyan Tree, “more and more of our guests ask about our environmental and social programs.” The Banyan Tree now have a scheme of fund-raising for environmental programs; so does Aleenta; and at Pimalai all rubbish is recycled, water and sewage is treated, and an advanced system has been set up to minimize electricity consumption.  

 

Pimalai has indeed gone further than most, yet most other resorts only dabble in environmental responsibility. Few diving centres affiliated to upscale resorts, for example, have joined Green Fins, a program launched in 2005 with the aim of reversing the impact on coral reefs by irresponsible diving. Instead, resorts prefer the gimmickry of publicity-grabbing turtle-releasing ceremonies in which guests feel proud of releasing turtles hatched in nurseries back into the wild; the problem, however, is that there are indications that most of the turtles released do not actually survive or go on to produce offspring successfully.  

 

Mostly then, it falls squarely on the PMBC to set the agenda in marine conservation, and to this end, the action plans that have recently been drafted to protect sea-grasses and sea turtles are more aggressive than ever. There are also now stepped-up attempts to rehabilitate damaged reefs. Five sites are currently undergoing reconstruction, including Phi Phi Lae Island, where 1,200 fragments of staghorn coral were cultivated in an underwater nursery for nine months, and then recently transplanted on reefs destroyed by the tsunami. “A national plan is currently being drafted for coral rehabilitation throughout the country,” says Dr Nalinee. “However, coral restoration is only a partial solution. It’s a slow process, as well as being labour-intensive and expensive, and the survival and growth of the transplants depends on factors such as water current, turbidity, human activities, and sedimentation. Due to these complications, coral rehabilitation is only possible in a few areas.”     

 

Sedimentation, caused by soil erosion during construction, is one of the greatest threats to coral reefs. “Sedimentation can permanently alter the environment suitable for coral reef development, making the recovery of the reefs very difficult,” explained Dr Nalinee. In theory, resorts and other coastal developments present plans on prevention of sedimentation as part of process of acquiring a permit. “But once the project is approved,” Dr Nalinee told me, “very few carry out what they proposed, and the government does not strictly follow up on the matter nor penalize those who do not follow the regulations. There are methods to prevent sedimentation – by silt curtains, or planting trees, or digging a pond to trap the silt – but hardly anyone does this effectively.”  

 

Or at least hardly anyone outside Trang, the province south of Krabi, where the local government’s leadership has been unwavering. Trang is the first province that has entirely banned push-nets, which destroy sea-grasses, a measure designed to protect the feeding ground of a herd of 150 dugongs, one of the largest extant herds in Southeast Asia. The province indeed remains gloriously wild, its coastline stitched with mangrove forests and its islands fringed by untouched reefs. It’s an emerging tourist destination, and an ongoing project seeks to develop green tourism: the plan envisages measures such as setting limits for the number of bungalows on each island and the mainland beaches, developing trekking and biking trails, dealing with waste in an eco-friendly manner, introducing green technology such as solar energy in islands, gradually upgrading the bungalows to eco-cocoons (local building materials, water-saving provisions, and so on), and many other ideas. Five pilot projects are now implementing some of these measures. “We encourage the pilots to take concrete actions for environmental protection, promotion of the local culture, support of the local economy, and to place value on visitor satisfaction,” elaborated Tomas Gustaffson, the Swedish project leader. “And the pilots have now started to be models for others by their actions and achievements.” 

 

At present Trang only has a few dozen accommodation outfits, and only one upscale hotel, the Amari Trang Beach Resort. The Amari’s rooms have spectacular vistas of the wide bay which has tongues of sandbanks in low-tide and a scattering of offshore karst isles set on the horizon. “Trang is still rather undiscovered territory,” told me Phillipp Reutener, the manager. “And we felt that there is a market for this kind of exclusive resort in such an untouched location.” Like the other new hotels in the Andaman Coast, occupancy remains relatively low; but unlike the other hotels, the ratio of repeat visitors is relatively high. And Reutener didn’t so much talk about the tourists hopping around Thailand to see different places; he talked of visitor satisfaction and tourists returning again and again. Now that’s a place that’s bucking the trend.  

 

© Victor Paul Borg. The above article was originally published in the Dubai-based magazine Destinations of the World News.

 

Victor Borg showing pictures to farmers.

CULTURAL INSIGHT

 Victor has lived in 6 countries in 3 continents; he understands Asian cultures intimately. 

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WORLD WRITING

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