Samui tourism supports second airport
SAMUI, 30 July 2012: Access to Samui Island remains one of the major problems that is limiting the island’s tourist arrivals as well as curtailing the island’s tourism industry from actively marketing their products, worldwide, local entrepreneurs told TTR Weekly over the weekend.
Interviews with the island’s tourism associations and government offices confirmed the general viewpoint that the island needed a bigger airport.
They claimed the single private airport and environmental restrictions on flights that limits airport operations from 0600 to 2200 was seriously hampering development.
Overall, they called for a second airport to be built on the island, although there is growing support by tourism executives for one to be built on the mainland to take into account environmental considerations.
“The most practical option is to build the second airport on the mainland at Don Sak district in Surat Thani province close to the ferry port. That would make it convenient for visitors to transfer from the airport to the ferry quickly,” said Samui Island Municipality mayor, Ramnate Chaikwang.
“Also it would satisfy the green lobby on the island and it would have a broader application as it could serve ferries to other islands such as Pha Ngan and Tao,” he added.
Mr Ramnate said land plots around Don Sak pier were available and an airport could be built possibly by a private concession or joint venture to speed up the project. It would require an area of approximately 2,000 rai (3,200,000 square metres) and construction would cost least Bt10 billion.
“A new airport project has been approved in principle by the mobile cabinet meeting held in Phuket last March,” said the Tourism Association of Samui Island president Bannasat Ruangjan. “The next move will be to conduct a feasibility study of the Don Sak proposal and that will take a year to complete,” he added.
“We have a cap on airline capacity to the island, which means there are only 3,000 tourists visiting daily if all flights are full. There are 19,000 rooms on the island that need to be filled,” said Mr Bannasat.
Most of the airline passengers head for resorts in the mid-to-upper level, while the Don Sak ferry and train service from Bangkok to Surat Thani town cater to mainly budget travellers.
When the latter market is taken into account, Samui’s resorts are busy year-round, although owners complain the yield is low. They believe more airline services would bring in tourists with higher spending power.
The Don Sak feasibility study will address three issues; suitability of the new airport, passenger volume, environmental problems.
According to a report in Manager Online, the Don Sak airport project failed to pass the criteria last year.
However, last month the Minister of Transport, Charupong Ruangsuwan accepted that building a second airport on the island was difficult to achieve due to high investment costs (mainly land acquisitions) and environmental issue.
He identified three site options: One in front of Nathon Beach near Samui Island District Office; Don Sak ferry site and a site on Pha Ngan Island.
Of all three the most viable option was on the mainland at Don Sak, in Nakhon Si Thammarat province due to lower construction costs, a wider potential use in the long-term and compatibility with environment concerns for Samui Island.
The environmental lobby if it had its way would close down the existing airport as it argues the island should go for quality rather than numbers to save the island from further damage.
But there are strong commercial forces that are taking precedent over objections from the green lobby.
“A second airport at Don Sak would shorten the distance from the airport at Surat Thani town (94 km or a one hour and a half drive) or from Nakhon Si Thammarat Airport (105 km or a one hour and a half drive),” said Mr Bannasat.
The Thai Hotels Association southern chapter-east coast president, Ruengnam Chaikwang said a second airport would attract holiday charter flights as it is very difficult for them to land at Samui Airport due to its private status and environmental regulations.
Samui Airport opened in 1989 and is owned by Bangkok Airways. The airport is located 2 km away from the island’s most popular beach, Chaweng. Currently it can handle up to 36 flights daily from 0600 to 1000 with four airlines offering services; Bangkok Airways, Thai International Airways, Silk Air and Firefly.
The green lobby would like it to stay that way claiming any airline capacity increases will further degrade the island’s environment.
They claim the island cannot cope with the current boom in tourism. There are 19,000 rooms waiting to accommodate tourists but other facilities needed to maintain a clean and safe environment have not kept pace with the rooms. Rooms were easy and cheap to build, but garbage disposal, electricity, sewage and public health care are more expensive and funded from tax payers.
The introduction of a holiday tax to pay for the collection of garbage on the island and other utilities that are needed to support tourism is talked about, but so far has gained little or no traction.
Critics will say Samui’s tourism leaders need to rethink the island’s positioning. Just what do they want from their island? And more importantly, what can the island afford to give?
Mass tourism on the scale of Phuket or Pattaya? Or is there a different business model that so far has not been tested at any of the country’s beach resorts – sustainable tourism?