|Bangkok Post, ThailandMcClatchy-Tribune
Apr. 7, 2008 - The crazy pace of the big metropolis seems to be something from another planet when one walks down Mai Khao beach early in the morning. This beach in the northwest of Phuket is still unspoiled, protected as part Sirinath National Park. You won't find beach umbrellas, vendors and food stalls here.
While in the past Mai Khao (white wood) beach was indeed very isolated, things have changed today with a few five-star developments opening up. The first was JW Marriott, followed this past December by Sala Phuket, a five-star boutique hotel.
Getting ready to open in October this year is Anantara Resort & Spa while Seacon Development too is developing the Renaissance Phuket. Another development, West Sands, will feature a top-notch water park, villas and condominiums plus a hotel, all managed by Outrigger from Hawaii.
Some might think this is too much activity for this beautiful beach but it is worth remembering that it is Phuket's longest beach and is nationally protected. Garry Snodgrass, Sala Phuket's general manager, said the scale of development so far has indeed been small compared to what is taking place in, say, Dubai where around 80 five-star resorts are opening in the next two years.
Sala Phuket is a unique mixture of the very latest design trend -- with shades of black on black and more black around the lobby and the entrance, contrasted with red sofa sets. The pool villas, of which there are 63 with the remaining 16 being deluxe balcony rooms are all equipped with a private swimming pool. They have an outdoor but sheltered bathtub, shower and toilet.
Mr Snodgrass said attention to detail makes the de'cor outstanding. "What I find very interesting is that this is very contemporary but it's still got soul. Contemporary these days is minimalist, and it's contemporary with soul."
And what will make local people proud is that the entire development is entirely Thai. "Everything we have in this resort was made and sourced in Thailand," Mr Snodgrass said.
Guests enjoy the two beachfront swimming pools and restaurant, and the stylised salas and swings at various vantage points add to the charm.
As Mr Snodgrass sees it, there is room for more such development on Phuket, but at the top not lower end. "I think the two- and three-star markets, when you look at Patong and those areas, that market is almost saturated. What there is a need for, where there is potential for growth is the four- to five-star segment, particularly the five-star segment, the five-star luxury sector. I think there is plenty of room for growth there, and the consumer is demanding a higher level of experience."
While big brands are well-suited to developing tourist markets such as China, Russia and the Middle East, because they do offer a certain comfort level, Mr Snodgrass sees that professional small boutique operators are not only able to compete but actually raise the bar in an established market such as Thailand.
"You have to remember that a lot of large hotels are now diversifying into smaller brands because they are identifying that the consumer is looking for a more personal experience than just becoming a big number in a mass hotel."
These changes have set in because consumers are so much more educated, informed and demanding today and know what they want. Helping them make better holiday plans is of course the internet. Sala Phuket itself obtains as many as 25 percent of its bookings online at the moment, from its own site and popular wholesalers such as sawaddi.com, asiahotel.com and asiawebdirect.com.
Mr Snodgrass also drew attention to another major change, in that time-share operations have started to shake off their dubious image with Sala Phuket's neighbour JW Marriott a good example.
"The term time-share is really becoming a bit passe' now. From what I understand it's not time-share, you are actually becoming a member of a club so you are buying holiday membership. I think it's a good business model and I think it has proven to be very successful."
While the going is certainly good in Phuket right now, one would not want to ruin it with unplanned and uncontrolled development. Certainly Mr Snodgrass feels that some of the building codes could be better implemented with greater sensitivity toward the island's beautiful surroundings. "The reason people come here in the first place is that it's a tropical island, so always consider that before you carve out a new block of land and build a resort on it."
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Copyright (c) 2008, Bangkok Post, Thailand
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