A veteran of Phuket’s tourism industry, Anthony Lark, President of the Phuket Hotels Association, shares his thoughts on the Phuket Sandbox and some of his favourite experiences on the island.
As the first General Manager at the first Aman Resort, Amanpuri on Phuket Island in 1988, Anthony Lark has seen Phuket through ups and downs over countless seasons. A pioneer in the hotel and tourism business on the island, Lark has been the President of the Phuket Hotels Association since 2016. He is also active as the Executive Director-Advisor to Montara Hospitality (Trisara), the Executive Committee/Key Design and Operations Consultant for a 5-star resort and villa development in Koh Samui, and the founder of Anthony Lark, his own hospitality company.
Q: How has Phuket changed over the past year?
A: It’s interesting to reflect on how Phuket has changed.
Of course, the beaches, streets, and parks, etc. have been virtually deserted, which has created a remarkable growth in sea life, birdlife, etc. Nature has blossomed.
On the other hand, a majority of the Island’s economy is linked in some way to tourism, and thousands of people have left Phuket to return to their home provinces when the first wave of staff reductions and furloughs were instituted in March-June 2020. Many local families are finding it very hard to survive and the community has been rallying to assist with food and other essentials.
Organisations like One Phuket https://www.facebook.com/groups/onephuket/ are doing a fabulous job helping those in need.
Q: Having the whole island essentially to yourself during the pandemic must have had its nice points. What are some of your best memories from this period?
A: Yes, there is always opportunity and a way to find positivity in any crisis. For me, I have enjoyed roaming around Phuket’s quiet beaches and forests, which brought back the feelings I had about Phuket in the late 1980s when I first arrived here. It was a more simple time then, the population was about 100,000 and we saw under 1,000,000 arrivals, compared to the (approx.) 9,000,000 in 2019.
I also re-discovered the charm of the old town in Phuket, which is home to so many wonderful dining experiences and cultural experiences/architecture. And I wrote a book about my adventures running Amanpuri in the days before the Internet and mobile phones.
Q: It has been over a month since the launch, what are your early impressions of the Phuket Sandbox?
A: As the first destination east of the Maldives and west of Hawaii to attempt a scheme like Sandbox, this was a trial-and-error attempt to slowly restore tourism to the Island in a safe manner for both locals and tourists. Despite a few initial hiccups with documentation as one would expect, we have to date seen over 22,000 arrivals at Phuket Airport, with just a very small amount (under 0.5%) being detected with the virus on the arrival screening process. 91% of Phuket citizens have received one vaccine and over 72% are fully vaccinated.
It has literally been a lifeline for thousands of people here who rely on incomes generated by tourism, and although it’s very small numbers compared to the past, it is a start and we consider it a success.
Credit has to be given to the many organisations that navigated to make this scheme work, from the TAT, Provincial Government, Department of Public Health, Immigration, Phuket Tourist Association, TAT, and many others, including the Phuket Hotels Association.
Q: What new safety/screening measures are in place across the island?
A: There is a strict face mask rule, and over 400 hotels and thousands of restaurants and tourism service companies adhere to the SHA+ guidelines, which are in place to ensure tourists and local staff are safe.
Q: In what ways do you think Phuket can bounce back from this experience stronger than ever?
A: Our tourism and hotel organisations have been discussing this over the last year, asking ourselves about the lessons we learned from this, and how can we be better prepared to manage tourism in a more sustainable way.
The overriding consensus is that we have to continue to drive the marketing of Phuket to pivot away from the old reputation of beaches, girls, beer, and jet-ski, highlighting and promoting the incredible experiences Phuket has to offer. Nature is important as we are blessed with forests, magnificent islands surrounding us, and cultural diversions like elephant conservation camps. The island will always be associated with experiences on the water and our five world-class marinas are full of yachts, so this is a testament to how special the boating is.
We are also just an hour from one of the great tropical forests of the world, Khao Sok National Park, and many more.
Highlighting the fact that Phuket has become an island of gastronomy is also important, from amazing street food, great local beachside dining experiences to Michelin star restaurants. I also believe medical and wellness is a major factor and there has been growth in wellness resorts, Muay Thai, and wellness practices in the last couple of years.
Q: What’s the mid-to-long-term plan to drive up international arrival numbers?
A: It’s going to be a slow, long process. Keeping Phuket safe and remaining one of the only destinations to offer a Sandbox scheme is key to short-term growth. We hope that vaccination rates across Thailand will increase to the point that foreign governments will allow travel to Thailand without having to quarantine upon arriving home.
The TAT and individual hotels are all working hard to pivot away from mass tourism and to move towards a more sustainable future where there are fewer travelers spending more days here, which increases revenues while putting less pressure on this fragile environment. This will benefit the long-term growth.
Q: What are your personal favourite things to do in Phuket? Do you have a few “insider tips” you’d be willing to share?
A: Oh… so many!
- Being on a boat to visit one of the magical bays or surrounding islands close by is still the one great experience here.
- Visiting the charming old Phuket Town, and wandering up Thalang Rd, stopping for my favourite authentic local coffee “Oliang” and toast with sangkaya at “Kopitiam.”
- An early morning swim at the southern end of Naithorn Beach, followed by breakfast at one of the many cool cafes in the Cherngtalay/Boat Avenue area.
- My favourite food here is Khao Mun Gai at Kota restaurant in Phuket town. Same family making this for 100 years or so.
- I have a little convertible, and there is a lovely drive that winds through the rubber plantations from Thepsaktri Road east to pass by Ao Po and Mission Hills and Khao Pra Theaw National Park.