Phuket Governor In Face Off With Tourism Director General Over Corruption Allegations
The Director General of the Department of Tourism, Wanasiri Morakul, arrived in Phuket on Friday to personally question Governor Chockchai Dejamornthan and other top officials about a slew of critical issues facing Phuket as a tourism destination. Among the issues raised were the ongoing allegations of officials extorting money from tourism businesses and migrant workers, the crackdown on closing times on bars and nightclubs in Patong and the current state of Phuket International Airport.
“I came to Phuket to find out the truth from the Phuket Governor and relevant officials about that current entertainment tourism business ‘management’ as well as issues regarding the licenses of tour companies and tour guides,” she said. “I also came to check the standard of tourism ‘places’ and to learn how Phuket Airport is taking steps to make it better for tourists – because Phuket is a major revenue generating province for the country,” Ms Wanasiri said.
Sitting in the commander’s seat at the Phuket Incident Commander Centre, Provincial Hall, Ms Wanasiri opened the meeting with her focus on the current campaign on “illegal hotels”, to bring operators who rent out properties for periods of less than 30 days, including condo owners, into the fold under the Hotel Act. To this, Ms Wansiri’s instructions were brief. “We must make every hotel legal as quickly as possible,” was all she would say.
By coincidence, only hours earlier Gov Chockchai was in the commander’s chair, but publicly denying any high-ranking officials had taken bribes to allow illegal hotels to operate. This was not discussed when meeting Ms Wanasiri last week.
Regarding the crackdown on entertainment venues, forcing bars and nightclubs in Patong to close at midnight or 1am, Ms Wanasiri volunteered to act as an intermediary in resolving the issue. “I will help to find a way to resolve the matter, and to help investors in entertainment businesses, as this industry generates a lot of revenue in the tourism sector,” she said.
The crackdown, which was launched by surprise on Monday night (Jan 30), has left Bangla Rd, the heart and soul of Patong’s party district, deserted after the bars and clubs close. In response, more than 20 owners of bars, nightclubs and other entertainment businesses in Patong filed a petition addressed to Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha on Wednesday last week for a special zone to be set up, allowing the venues to close later than the current legally mandated times. Gov Chockchai made no mention on any further progress on the closing time crackdown.
Instead, he talked about tour guides. “Only Thai people can be tour guides, and Phuket has many illegal tour guides,” he started. “I have found there are many Scandinavian tourists coming to Phuket, and translators are needed because Thai tour guides cannot speak Scandinavian languages. But translators must work with Thai tour guides,” Gov Chockchai added. He then somehow concluded, “I can confirm absolutely that there are no illegal tour guides in Phuket.”
While Gov Chockchai’s awkward explanation failed to include any response to the call by former Phuket Senator Tunyaratt Achariyachai for a Bangkok-led investigation into rampant corruption among officials in Phuket – specifically mentioning harassment and extortion by officials against Scandinavian tour operators – he did at least acknowledge the alleged extortion by officials targeting migrant workers.
“Myanmar workers who had work permits and valid passports and other documents were caught and charged for working at a place not entered in their work permits,” he said. “Foreign workers will be checked for the correct documents and work permits, and if they are working outside the restrictions in their work permits – we must follow law” he said. Incredibly, however, by this reasoning Gov Chockchai concluded, “So there is no extortion by officials in Phuket.”
To answer questions about Phuket Airport, airport official Thammanu Kertnak explained, “Right now Phuket Airport is undergoing improvements to the Domestic Terminal. Some parts of the building must be closed and this affects passengers, causing inconvenience. “The improvements will be finished by December 11 this year,” he said.
Mr Thammanu, however, did bring Ms Wanasiri up to speed on the state of the toilets. “We have already ordered staff to take care of this. Finally, the toilets are clean and ready for passengers,” he said, explaining an issue already raised and resolved by Transport Minister Lt Gen Arkhom Termpittayapaisith during his inspection of the airport on Jan 23.
Mr Thammanu made no mention of the lack of security scanners at the entrances to the brand-new multi-billion baht International Terminal, causing huge queues of tourist waiting in the heat outside, which Gen Arkhom ordered urgent attention to. He also made no mention of airport officials this week starting to use the smaller X-Terminal to reduce the queues.
In concluding the meeting yesterday, Ms Wanasiri expressed her concern about the impact Social Media can have in relaying the current spate of problems facing Phuket’s tourism industry to persons inside and outside the country. “People should be careful when sharing news such as this on social media because when it gains widespread presence, the news can have a negative effect on Phuket’s tourism image,” she said.
Regardless, she added, “I would like to take this opportunity to encourage all officials to work hard for Phuket Province – and to let them know that I will bring all the information I have learned to the attention of the Tourism Minister. Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul” she concluded.