|By Walailak Keeratipipatpong, Bangkok Post, Thailand|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Mar. 11--Nearly 20 years ago, Preeda Charoenphat suddenly decided to sell his entire fleet of fishing boats. The reason? One day his crews went out and pulled up their nets, only to find them empty.
"I decided to sell all 13 of the boats that I had paid for bit by bit over two decades," said Mr Preeda, a native of Ban Laem, a fishing village in Phetchaburi.
The time to change careers had come. Mr Preeda, 58, saw that catches in the Gulf of Thailand were dwindling rapidly due to technological advances in the fishing industry.
He invested some of the 30 million baht he got from selling his boats on a small resort called Sarika Villa, on the coast of Bang Saphan Noi district in Prachuap Khiri Khan province.
"I wanted to build up the coastline to be booming like Pattaya," he said. But given the resort's relatively isolated location -- more than 130 kilometres from more popular Hua Hin -- he was forced to turn his back on that dream.
Mr Preeda then returned to the sea once more, not to cast his nets, but to raise black tiger shrimp.
"I was among the few first entrepreneurs to raise shrimp in Thailand, even before CP," he said, referring to the CP Group, whose pioneering efforts in large-scale shrimp farming in the mid-1980s have made it one of Thailand's biggest companies.
Mr Preeda's shrimp venture has paid off handsomely, with current prices around 130 baht a kilogramme.
He claims his operations take in at least 10 million baht a month, allowing his family to reap the rewards of that success, such as a shiny new Citroen car for his son on his graduation day.
As part of his shrimp business, Mr Preeda often sails to the islands off the coast of Bang Saphan Noi. One island, Koh Talu, gets its name from a giant hole in a high cliff wall formed by the action of waves and wind over the eons.
"The island is beautiful, with coral reefs under a clear blue sea. It is home to various species of fish, many migrating along ocean currents from Vietnam and Cambodia," Mr Preeda said.
"But the fish were being wiped out every day by fishing boats which used dynamite, because it allowed them scoop up a lot of fish in a short time."
He urged the Fisheries Department to limit fishing in the area and declare it an underwater park for conservation.
Intrigued by the island's calm atmosphere, shaded by hundreds of coconut palms, Mr Preeda said he gradually bought up deeds and land ownership documents on more than 300 rai from island residents, which at that time numbered only 18 households.
The residents in Koh Talu were the descendants of those who followed a group of aristocrats who fled to the south after the change from absolute to constitutional monarchy after 1932.
The little known location has seen few tourists in recent decades, with the exception of a few day-tripping divers who usually return to Hua Hin by nightfall due to the lack of accommodation on the island, Mr Preeda said.
To promote Koh Talu for tourism, Mr Preeda began building a small resort on a secluded beach called Ao Muk, which means "pearl bay", in 1996 with a three million baht capital investment. However, he said, the resort did not take off because it was not marketed effectively and had limited accommodations.
He then shifted to a bigger beach, Ao Sai Yai (Big Ficus Tree Bay), and invested another ten million baht to build a 20-room resort.
Opened two years ago, Ban Maphrao Koh Talu Resort has received a good response from visitors, mostly foreigners.
More expansion started last year with plans to add another 40 rooms, backed by a 50-million-baht loan from Krung Thai Bank.
The resort has taken shape as a clutch of detached, Thai-style cottages built along the shoreline shaded from the sea-side by a grove of coconut trees. Target groups are Scandinavian tourists and wealthy Thai families seeking a weekend of tranquillity.
Aside from overseeing operations on a day-to-day basis, Mr Preeda brags that nearly every day he has to turn down offers to buy the island from local and foreign millionaires. He says the highest offer so far topped 1.6 billion baht.
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(c) 2004, Bangkok Post, Thailand. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. KGTFF,