Lee Cobaj, The Daily Telegraph, September 11, 2014
It’s now 100 days since the military junta’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) took power in Thailand and, despite numerous pleas and promotions from the Thailand Tourism Authority, the tourism industry has still not fully recovered from the effects of the government overthrow.
Tourist numbers dropped significantly in the month following the coup and signs of recovery have been slow over the summer months. However, a full bounce back may be imminent as the junta announced yesterday that it is considering lifting martial law, particularly in areas that attract a large numbers of tourists.
According to today’s Amnesty International report, it has become part of the military government’s modus operandi to crack down on the smallest forms of dissent, including reading George Orwell’s 1984 and eating a sandwich in public – at one point a symbolic form of peaceful protest.
In an attempt to improve things for holidaymakers and hopefully tempt them back, the resort island of Phuket has also been subject to a widespread crackdown on corruption and anti-social behaviour. In an attempt to crush the island’s deeply-rooted “mafia” connections, taxi and tuk-tuk drivers have been arrested, jet-ski operators have been suspended pending proper licensing, and illegal structures have been bulldozed from beaches.
Local businesswoman LJ Legg told me: “At the beginning it was inconvenient at times, with more road blocks and checks, but life mostly feels normal - and even better in some cases – but there is an awareness that that could change at any time.”
For now though, those in search of an island paradise will find that Phuket is a lot closer to that vision than it was a year ago. Exhausted visitors arriving at the airport will no longer be forced to pay ludicrously inflated fares to unscrupulous taxi drivers. A shared mini-bus scheme is now available, costing between £3 to £4 per person for those travelling to Phuket Town, Patong or Kata. For those venturing elsewhere, metred taxis can be found on the right hand side of the arrivals exit with fares comparable to those in Bangkok.
The crackdown has also had a mainly positive effect on Phuket’s beaches as large numbers of food vendors, masseuses, sun-bed renters and bars have been forcibly removed leaving bright white swathes of sand without a gaudy brolly or intimidating tout in sight. Although on the downside, holidaymakers will find fewer convenient places to eat and drink. Well known beach clubs such as Diamond and Bongo’s in Surin, the Reggae Bar in Bang Tao, and Skyla’s in Kamala have been completely closed down, while other popular hang-outs like Catch, Zazada and Bimi have been halved in size.
More changes are predicted for the future, including tighter monitoring of tour guides and a requirement for all foreign yachts to be fitted with AIS tracking systems. Many residents also hope that the government will take a look at the Phuket’s pernicious animal attractions, putting an end to the likes of Tiger Kingdom, elephant trekking and knocking on the head plans for a dolphinarium which is due to open later this year.
The latest advice from the Foreign Office states that, “Martial law is in place and provides an enabling framework for the Royal Thai Army to take action it deems necessary to enforce law and order. Instructions can change rapidly.” It continues to be illegal to criticise the coup and visitors should remain wary of getting into political conversations.
In its efforts to woo tourists, Tourism Thailand has introduced the “Thailand Travel Shield”, a travel insurance top-up aimed specifically at visitors who can’t find a policy that covers countries under martial law. Policies start from 650 THB (£12.50) and can be downloaded at tourismthailand.org/ThailandTravelShield/ .
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This article was written by Lee Cobaj from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.