Liverpool legend John Arne Riise learned this firsthand during his recent travels around Phang Nga Bay as part of a Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) documentary intended to promote community-based tourism development. The last stop on his travels was Koh Panyi.
Villagers on Koh Panyi still earn a good part of their living from fishing, but tourism has now become a big part of the local economy too, and several large restaurants have been built to cater to the rising influx of tourists, offering fresh seafood and stunning views. The hundreds of huts, shacks, restaurants and houses are built on stilts over the surrounding shallow sea.
Villagers and their kids happily pull local fish, cockles and clams from nets that soon will be served to visitors while helping sustain the local fishing industry in the most practical of ways. There is also a large number of stalls and shops selling handicrafts and souvenirs in amongst the residents’ warren of houses. The village now has its own school, a solitary policeman and a health centre, plus several small football pitches, including the famed floating one.
The significance of it all isn’t lost on Riise, who sees sport, and in particular football, as a sort of glue that bonds sustainable community development.
“I think [sport] is the easiest way to connect people and to give people of different backgrounds a way out to a better life. We might have different lifestyles and come from different parts of the world, but sport is always the easiest way to meet other people and connect in a fun-filled environment,” said Riise.
The island has its own football team, Panyee FC, that got its original inspiration from watching the 1986 World Cup. A group of young boys decided to form the team and built a pitch with bits of old wood and anything else they could find on the island. The island has a new and better land-based pitch today, but a newer version of the floating pitch is still there to show the tourists where it all began. It was a simple idea of building something out of nothing that has had the most meaningful impact on sustainable tourism development on the island.
The Panyee FC team, currently one of the most successful youth teams in Southern Thailand, and winners of the South Thailand Youth Soccer Championships on many occasions, were excited that the Liverpool legend was coming to visit, and together they played Sepak Takraw, or kick volleyball, and an informal football match on the floating pitch.
Afterwards, Riise spent time taking selfies and signing autographs. It was a small gesture but was his way of giving back to local communities.
“I feel honoured because I am so far away from where I come from in a small city in Norway. The fact that people recognise me shows how big football is and that I must have done something good in my career. I enjoy it because I know how much it means to them,” explains Riise.
Riise’s time in Phang Nga, and particularly on Koh Panyi, acknowledges the power of tourism as an agent of change that can improve lives. The idea of sustainable tourism should transcend conventional perceptions of travel like on Koh Panyi, where immersing tourists in authentic experiences is mutually beneficial for both the locals and visitors.
– Tourism Authority of Thailand