The Beer Bars are not Full. Have Phuket's Tourists Changed?
Phuket has just enjoyed one of its best tourism years ever with the total number of visitors believed to have exceeded five million. However, it could be that the type of tourist who visits Phuket has changed.
Hotels across the island are reporting high occupancy rates and new hotels and resorts are being built to add to Phuket's already plentiful supply of rooms.
Shopping and entertainment venues continue to do well. Many people felt that major new malls like Central and Jung Ceylon would struggle to find a niche on an island that is already saturated with shopping outlets. These fears appear to have been unfounded, as both locations are thriving.
At the same time, luxury housing developments targeted at rich foreign investors continue to sprout up all around the island. Despite a clampdown on foreign ownership regulations that has hurt the property market in Bangkok and Pattaya, the luxury developments in Phuket continue to find foreigners who want their slice of paradise.
Other major developments are underway or in the pipeline. An international conference and exhibition center, a sports center, a water park, new marinas and private islands are just some of the plans included in Phuket's future.
All in all, it would appear that Phuket is thriving. Despite the wailings of the doom and gloom merchants. Despite the traffic problems that come with the ever increasing number of people on the island. Despite the crowds, the garbage overflow, the erosion of natural beauty and the polluted sea at Patong. Despite some terrible publicity from recent attacks and even murders of foreign visitors. Despite all of this, it would seem visitors still love Phuket.
Yet one section of Phuket's tourism industry is not reporting a good year. If you ask the beer bar owners along Bangla Road, they mostly say it has been an average year. The Election Day holidays right before Christmas did not help them but apart from that, there have been no major disruptions to compare with recent years.
Somehow, despite every other sector of the tourism industry reporting a good year, the beer bars say business is flat and turnover is about the same as last year. How can this be?
If you walk down Bangla Road, you will see lots of people. It is a walking street in the evenings and it is heaving with tourists. Even during the low season, there were plenty of people around. However, most nights you could take a turn into the beer bar sois to get away from the crowds. The majority of the heaving masses were just not making their way into the beer bars. Why is this?
It only takes a quick study of the crowd in Bangla Road to see the answer. Although there are many people, they are not the same demographic as previous years. There are many couples walking arm-in-arm and quite a few groups of single females. There are many older people, eyes agog at the dancing transvestites. There are also lots of Asian visitors snapping away with their shiny digital cameras. Most of these people have not come to drink beer and find female company. They are here to sightsee. They want to take in a bit of the renowned colour of Patong's nightlife before going to a restaurant or their hotel.
Where are all the middle-aged guys with young Thai beauties on their arms? In previous years, they would be every other group you saw walking down Bangla Road. They are still here of course, but now there are so many other types of tourist that you don't notice them so much. The fact that the beer bars say business is the same as last year shows the regular guys are still around.
It just seems that the new tourists are from a different demographic. The Tourism Authority of Thailand has long been pushing their vision of more quality tourists for Thailand. By quality tourist, they mean people who spend more money. That way they can have fewer tourists and still get more money. It is a dream of course. By this definition, these new tourists are no more quality than the sex tourists. They are not millionaires throwing money around like paper. They don't spend any more than the sex tourists, they just spend their money in different places. More money will go to restaurants and tours, less will be spent on beer and girls.
So is this the end for the beer bars? I know one bar owner who swears he has seen the plans for Bangla Road. They are going to knock down all the beer bars and replace them with boutique hotels and shops. He has been claiming this for four years and there is still no sign of it happening.
The thing is these beer bar sois are still great money earners. Not so much for the beer bar owners who mostly scrape by or go under, but the landlords who rake in big rents every month and key money every lease renewal are making a fortune.
There is still plenty of demand for beer and girls. The regular guys are going to keep coming back because it is what they know and new guys will continue to fall for the charms of Bangla's girls.
The strange thing is that even the new tourists want to see the naughtier side of Phuket's nightlife. They might not go into the bars for a drink and a chat with the girls but they still like to see the action. It is one of the things that Thailand is renowned for and they want a photo of a ladyboy to show their friends back home. Many of them would be disappointed if there weren't go-go bars and flashing lights.
I think the Phuket tourist demographic is changing. We are going to see more 'mainstream' tourists and perhaps a gradual decline in sex tourism. Still I think Bangla Road will continue in its current form for many years to come.