Welcome to this new regular column which is titled “A Meal with...”
For each article, I have the great pleasure of inviting one of Phuket’s best known personalities to join me for a meal in one of their favourite eateries.
Not content to luxuriate in a cocoon of indulgent hedonism however, we will also turn our attention to one weighty question that concerns all of us here in Phuket: “Where is Phuket going?”
While nibbling on fine comestibles and quaffing enlivening libations, we will seek to define where our beloved “tropical island paradise” is heading, for better or worse, and what, if anything, we can do about it.
My first guest (or victim) is Bruce Stanley, certainly one of the island’s best-known media personalities who has been visiting Phuket since 1971 and has called it his home for over 25 years.
I am fortunate in counting Bruce as a close friend and he is an archetypical example of the man who seems to know everybody and whom everybody seems to know.
Bruce began his illustrious career as a foreign reporter for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, while still in university.
He travelled and filed stories from regional wars in Central America, the civil war in Nigeria, and for the independence of Bangladesh.
Bruce became a freelance writer in 1971 but first arrived in Phuket to cover the openings of the island’s first five-star resorts, Le Meridien Phuket, Phuket Yacht Club (now The Nai Harn), the Dusit Thani Laguna Phuket, and the former Phuket Arcadia (now the Phuket Hilton) all of which opened in 1987 and brought the first waves of international tourists.
He visited Phuket often after that and finally settled on the island in 1991 to work in the developing English media sector.
Our meal together was a fabulous Sunday brunch at Sail’s, the lustrous poolside restaurant in the Hilton Arcadia.
Amidst an explosion of pool-side vegetation Bruce and I nibbled on a fantastic range of fine cuisine including domestic and imported seafood, splendid sushi and sashimi, a huge meat selection, complementary salads, always remembering to leave tummy space for the great assortment of different cheeses and cold cuts, and finally the various kinds of dessert, from mango puddings to delicious tiramisu that awaited us.
In many ways this brunch seems to exemplify all that is best about Phuket – fabulous scenery, tropical vegetation, happy families and kiddies enjoying the great outdoors and the very best in food, hospitality and holiday entertainment.
However, Bruce pointed that in the early days, things were not at all like this. In the first decade of international tourism, the winter season saw primarily European visitors eager to sample the pleasures of tropical Southeast Asia.
The monsoon season brought the Japanese who supported the new resorts during a quieter (less costly) time.
Bruce notes that life was not particularly easy on Phuket in the early years as there were daily power cuts that left everyone gasping for air.
Only the best resorts had high-powered generators to provide relief. There was little or no air conditioning on the island.
Only one store provided Western foodstuff to the expat community as the local Thais generally did not consume butter, cheese or coffee.
Since there were fewer cars on the island, this allowed those on motorcycles to drive even faster and more erratically.
And says Bruce, raising a knowing eyebrow, “There’s no need for me to talk about the police and immigration services in those early day.”
Time passes and now in 2017, 46 years after Bruce’s arrival in Phuket, he offers up a few key thoughts on the future of tourism for the island.
1. While in the early years, resorts would focus on a single market and hope to make them feel comfortable in each other’s company, we have seen a gradual growth in mixed tourism whereby many nationalities share tourism facilities.
2. The debate that has raged for many years about whether the future for Phuket tourism centres on attracting high-end visitors, or accepting the mass market.
It seems the latter argument has won with many former high-end visitors now having holidays in a wide variety of competitive destinations far from the rumble of huge tour buses.
3. The efficiency and transparency of local government continues to improve to meet the requirements of small and big investors and the government agencies in Bangkok who monitor issues regarding safety and legal proceedings.
4. We continue to see the growth and diversity of food stuffs, wines and beers on offer to meet the tastes of an ever more diverse collection of visitors.
While 30 years ago, only a few hundred thousand international visitors bravely arrived to a somewhat unknown Phuket, today that figure has grown into many millions, creating an enormous demand for services which the local authorities and tourism leaders struggle, not unsuccessfully, to meet.
5. We see continued improvement in medical care. Thirty years ago, there were only two small hospitals on Phuket neither of which could provide complex treatments.
Today the number of hospitals continues to grow providing services to fit most budgets and medical and dental tourism are huge money-spinners.
Bruce emphasises that while it is easy to be critical about the problems of growth and the blight of infrastructure on Phuket, we should acknowledge the tremendous planning and control that is needed to cope with the development of one of the world’s most successful tourism hubs.
Phuket is not what it was 30 years ago. Those looking for a tropical paradise have either departed to other islands, or are preparing to do so.
The island is now an urban tropical resort destination not unlike Bali, or the resort communities in Florida or Mexico, where millions arrive wanting sun, sea and sand.
Thirty years ago the local Thais did not speak much English but wanted the lucrative jobs in the international resorts.
That led to a lot of frustration with guests and Thais had to learn about saving face when someone would yell at them.
Increasingly, Thai tourism workers speak English and are well trained. Many are the second generation of their family in tourism and they are no longer intimidated by foreigners at work.
Also there were no trained hospitality managers 30 years ago but today and in the future we see more Thai general managers who have years of experience.
Bruce concluded by saying; “I’d like to stress the diversity of arrivals into Phuket these days, a trend, along with the increase in sophisticated travellers, which is bound to continue.
I recall in the 1990s, some nationalities, brought their own food in suitcases as they were terrified to eat anything besides their national dishes.
“There were stories of others who always brought scissors with them so that they could deftly cut out carpet pieces from under the beds to take home as souvenirs.
The visitors of the future will have been to many destinations, sampled the cuisine of many cultures and travel oblivious to the dangers of being in a strange place.
The internet and mass, low-cost airlines have a lot to answer for!”