|From Coconuts to Superyachts|
The development of Phuket Island's marine industry from then, until now
Photos of Phuket in the late seventies and early eighties have recently been circulating on Facebook. They show deserted pristine beaches and no more than a handful of yachts to be seen. Now the Island is rightly lauded as the maritime hub of Southeast Asia, boasts four worldclass marinas and the best refit capability in the region bar none.
A small number of long-term residents have helped to shape the marine industry as we see it today. One such person is Andy Dowden who arrived in Phuket aboard his own 46-foot yacht in 1984 having sailed from the UK via the Mediterranean. At that time the potential of Phang Nga Bay and the islands of the Andaman Sea as a charter destination to rival the Mediterranean and the Caribbean was plain to see. But at the time yacht crews needed to lug their supplies and provisions aboard with jerry cans and dinghies.
The first facility servicing yachts on the island, Phuket Yacht Services, was developed in 1989 at Laem Phrao (the site of Phuket Yacht Haven today) and during the high season it also located on Bang Tao Beach on the island's west coast. This was a joint venture between Asia Voyages and Amanpuri – co-founded by Andy Dowden, Vincent Tabuteau, Jan Jacobs and Bill O'Leary – to service their own fleets and to offer services to visiting yachts.
The first bareboat fleet of Sunsail yachts was managed and operated by Phuket Yacht Services from Laem Phrao in 1990. At its height the base was home to 40 yachts on moorings serviced by an all-tide jetty with fuel and water.
In the mid-90s the island's first marina, Phuket Boat Lagoon, was developed by local entrepreneur Kanit Yongsakul. The second marina, Phuket Yacht Haven, was built on the site of the old Phuket Yacht Services base and the stage was set for the yachting boom to take off. Phuket Boat Lagoon quickly became the centre of the technical service companies on the island with lift-out facilities and extensive hardstand space.
All of this tapped into the large number of local Thai technicians who had learned their trade in those early years with Phuket Yacht Services. The next marina development, Royal Phuket Marina, took the concept of residential marinas to the next level with electronics magnate Gulu Lalvani investing in Phuket.
Over the same period, yacht regattas were being held in and around the Island. The first and now arguably biggest in Asia, the Phuket King's Cup Regatta, was started in 1987. Dowden was part of the Organizing Committee and in 2001 as President helped the Regatta grow in size and reputation. Alongside the Bay Regatta (1998), Phuket Raceweek (2004), and the Multihull Regatta, Phuket (2008), the racing culture has flourished on the Island.
And then came the superyachts. Even in the early nineties a few intrepid owners would bring their yachts to the region to enjoy the fabulous cruising grounds and with the opening of Ao Po Grand Marina (2008), together with the established superyacht capacity of Phuket Yacht Haven, there are plenty of berths for these state-of-the-art yachts with arrivals expected to top 100 annually following the introduction of a special charter license in late 2015.
The Asia Superyacht Rendezvous gathers together visiting yachts each December on the west coast to network and enjoy the Island. Dowden has been "Race Officer" since its inception in 2000, and on the back of the current opening up for foreign-flagged superyachts to charter in Thailand, the Rendezvous can expect to see an increase in participants.
Even before this evolution of the industry, the Thai Government abolished the 240% import duties and taxes on yachts in 2003. This followed a two year campaign by industry leaders to convince the authorities that the potential for sustainable high worth tourism was worth the effort. As a result, many new charter companies sprang up, operating with Thai flagged boats.
The import duty reduction coincided with the inaugural Phuket International Boat Show founded by Dowden and then business partner Grenville Fordham, in 2003. The Show was held initially at Phuket Boat Lagoon under canvas and since 2007 in the Exhibition Hall at Royal Phuket Marina.
The Show has grown and promoted the industry hand-in-hand over the last 13 years. In 2016, the Phuket International Boat Show expects to see a bigger presence of yachts over 30m with the introduction of the new regulations.So what of the future and what remains to be done?
While more marina berths are already needed and some plans are on the table, the single most important boost to the island's marine economy would be to develop a Superyacht Refit Facility. The skill base on the island is already there but currently there is no yard capable of lifting yachts over 45m. Superyacht owners are forced to use yards in Bangkok, or further afield in Singapore and beyond where the costs are much higher. As the number of yachts basing themselves in Asia increases, taking advantage of the year round season, the potential for Phuket to be the best refit centre in the world is huge. The future is bright and this activity is so much better for the island's environment than busloads of package tourists clogging up the roads.