Tourists at Koh Hong in Phangnga National Park enjoy kayaking offered by locals as part of a community tourism initiative. (Photo by Apinya Wipatayotin)
Hotel and tourism operators are calling for a new full-scale commercial airport in Phangnga province to accommodate a surge of tourism on the Andaman coast.
Nantida Atiset, president of the Phangnga Tourism Association, said the time is ripe for the government to allow investors to build a new airport in the province, and local people and businesses are desperate to have their own airport to deal with growing tourism on the Andaman coast.
Currently, tourists travelling to Phangnga have to fly to Phuket or Krabi airport and then drive for another hour to reach Phangnga city or Khao Lak. Phuket and Krabi airports are also operating at full capacity.
Visitor arrivals to Phangnga exceeded 1 million for the first time in 2012, quadrupling to 4 million in 2015.
According to consulting group C9 Hotelworks, Phangnga province recorded a record high 4.47 million visitors in 2016, fetching the province US$1.16 billion or 38.6 billion baht in tourism income.
While the annual growth rate has slowed since 2014, the compound annual growth rate for the five years ending in 2016 was 29%, boosted by international arrivals.
Looking at the average length of stay, the number for international visitors is significantly longer at 6.7 days, compared to 2.4 days for domestic visitors.
Bill Barnett, managing director of C9 Hotelworks, said with so many visitors, Phangnga is facing difficulties because of crowded skies at Phuket airport.
“Despite its expansion, Phuket airport has already exceeded its stated capacity,” said Mr Barnett. “Phangnga desperately needs a gateway airport. It will benefit not only Phangnga province but also Phuket’s tourism sector.”
He said Phangnga and its leading resort area, Khao Lak, heavily rely on Phuket’s overloaded international airport. With over 12,000 registered hotel rooms in the province and a burgeoning pipeline of new projects, something has to give.
“Looking at Phangnga’s key economic indicators, the province experienced a shift in 2014 and 2015 when the hotel and restaurant sector surged ahead of agriculture and fisheries to become its leading industry,” said Mr Barnett.
“While the province’s legacy of rubber plantations face growing volatility and fishing is seeing flat demand, tourism over the past five years has skyrocketed, with a compound annual growth rate of 29%. If the situation is allowed to continue, the long-term limitations will stunt the province’s most important industry.”
Plans for the development of a privately operated airport in the Muang district by Bangkok Airways are now under review as part of an environmental impact assessment. While Phangnga’s provincial government has been a strong advocate, the project has faced local opposition from the agricultural sector.
The framework for a privately operated airport serving Thailand’s tertiary tourism destinations has registered considerable interest following Bangkok Airways’ award-winning Koh Samui facility.
AirAsia’s overtures to commence service to Hua Hin, which has suffered from a lack of flights, has made recent headlines.
Supavee Khorpetch, assistant managing director of The Haven Hotel Khao Lak, said the hotel would definitely secure more clients if there was a new airport in the province.
“Many more tourists, especially from China, want to visit Phangnga, but they cannot get seats due to limited air capacity,” said Ms Supavee.
Phangnga governor Phakkaphong Tawipatana said Bangkok Airways has requested to build a new airport in what it describes as the “deteriorated” forest reserve of Khlong Thung Maprao, in tambon Lam Kaen, Muang district.
The privately owned airline plans to use up to 1,915 rai in the reserve to build a runway, passenger terminal and related facilities.
Mr Phakkaphong said the Royal Forest Department is vetting the carrier’s request and checking whether the land plot requested by the private airline is, in fact, deteriorated.
He recently held talks with tourism-related associations and the private sector, all of whom agreed the new airport would help create huge opportunities for growth in the industry, said Mr Phakkaphong.
“Without the new airport, Phangnga will lose a chance to grow its economy and tourism. Nonetheless, the project depends on the government,” he said.