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Tourism trouble for Phuket

AFP  Dec 29, 2008

Phuket - As Thai women in tartan schoolgirl outfits writhe listlessly around poles on the bar top, Dawan Blades scribbles in a black ledger and shakes her head. The numbers simply don't add up.

This year's tourist season on Thailand's biggest island of Phuket looks set to be the worst since Ms Blades took over Sharky's Bar six years ago.

Located at the entrance of a huge bar complex in Patong Beach, Phuket's busiest tourist town, Sharky's should be standing room only. Instead, barely half the bar stools are occupied.

'Business is down, darling. Dead, no good,' Ms Blades drawls.

Phuket, along with the rest of Thailand, is reeling from the aftermath of political protests in Bangkok that brought the capital's two main airports to a standstill for eight days from late November to early December.

Images of hundreds of thousands of stranded travellers desperate to leave the country were beamed around the world, prompting droves of tourists to cancel holidays planned for December and January.

The airport siege could not have come at a worse time. Peak season in Thailand runs from November to February and industry officials believe it will be at least four months before business recovers.

Sunbathers still dot Phuket's sandy white beaches but in far fewer numbers than is usual at this time of year.

Nevertheless, it's a dream come true for some holidaymakers more used to Phuket's mass tourism.

'I was here three months ago in the low season and it was much busier back then,' said Chenae King from western Australia, who has been travelling for five months.

'It's good for us because you don't have to battle with anyone else. They're struggling to sell so you get everything for really low prices,' she said.

Many hotels have halved their room rates to drum up business but occupancy has still dropped to 50 per cent from an average of 80 per cent, according to the Thai Hotel Association.

On the streets of Patong, entertainers work hard to draw customers into bars and nightclubs.

Flourishing red feather boas and flaunting plunging necklines, transvestites from Tangmo cabaret are spending a lot of time these days pounding the footpaths and posing posed for photos with passers-by.

It doesn't seem to make much difference.

'Business has really gone downhill,' said the cabaret's owner, Chanok Kaewseenuan, who is better known as Tangmo. 'It's much worse than after the tsunami.'

The tsunami, which killed 5,400 people in Thailand in December 2004 and a total of 220,000 people across Asia, has become the benchmark for the drop in business.

Tourism bounced back relatively quickly after the natural disaster. This time, it may take longer as the global economic downturn hits purse strings and slows international travel.

Officials believe they can weather the latest storm, however long.

'Our experience with the tsunami has shown us how to cope, how to survive,' said Mr Sethaphan Buddhani, director of the Thailand Tourism Authority in Phuket.

'We help each other, not only the government but also the private sector and banks. We help each other in terms of loans for example. We will extend the hotels' loans by at least three years,' Mr Buddhani added.

The government is mulling a 625-million-dollar (S$901.4 million) rescue package for the tourism industry amid warnings from the Thai Hotels Association that 100,000 hotel workers could lose their jobs.

Lay-offs are a last resort in Phuket though. Both Mr Chanok and Ms Blades pledged to keep their staff on, even if it means dipping into savings.

'Before business was very good. There were many customers, work was non-stop,' said Ms Blades, who employs 16 people at Sharky's Bar and many more at her massage parlour, beauty salon and restaurant.

'I'm not going to cut salaries now. I'll use money from before to pay staff and wait for better times.'

At Tangmo, the show must go on so the girls sashay onto the stage for the first of three nightly performances in front of a near-empty audience.

Tourism trouble for Phuket
Staff sit around waiting for customers at an empty Sharky's Bar in Phuket / Image via AFP

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