Wednesday, December 23, 2009

If you build it, they might not come

It made me think that government statistics are optimistic lies, no matter where you are.


We are at Nai Yang Beach, a sheltered stretch of sand on the northwest coast of Thailand's Phuket Island. It's a tourist area, and December is high season, but thus far we've seen more hotel workers, taxi drivers, bartenders and bar girls than fellow tourists. Such a high ratio of help to paying guests is only normal at Amanpuri, a high-end resort five miles down the coast, where even the cheap rooms go for $1,000 a night. There, four people attend to each guest, and bar girls aren't even allowed. Our Thailand guidebook says Amanpuri is as close as most of us can get to being treated like royalty, and based on my one stay there 20 years ago, I'd have to agree.

But our hotel, the Nai Yang Beach Resort, is considerably cheaper than Amanpuri, even cheaper than most Boise hotels. It has three sparkling and nicely chilled pools, one with a bar, and that's the one we've been frequenting when we're not out on the beach. Happy hour runs from 3-5 p.m., which works out to 1-3 a.m. Ketchum Time, if you're counting.

The place is mostly empty, the people are friendly and the food is beyond good. While the room we're in isn't as nice as any at Amanpuri, it isn't $950 less nice. If we don't feel royal, we at least feel noble.

But yesterday, hoping to catch a glimpse of royalty, or at least a Russian oligarch or two, we took a walk on the beach, going toward a great luxury hotel occupying the headland that marks the south end of Nai Yang Beach. It looked like a great collection of huge Thai temples down there, and we walked to within a half mile of it before we realized it wasn't finished. We walked a bit more and realized it wasn't going to be.

It was a ruin. The marble-faced rooms, all 200-odd of them, were windowless. Here and there trees had taken root in the walls and terraces. The tiled swimming pool was half filled with brackish water, and the reflecting ponds between the reception area and the beach were dry and scattered with leaves and plastic trash.

We walked past signs in Thai that may or may not have said "Keep Out," and looked into dim hallways lined with dark doorways. The elevator shaft went down and down to far below ground level, and things dropped into it went "splash." Stacks of marble slabs occupied the unfinished kitchen of a restaurant whose empty windows looked out on a small collection of stranded fishing boats lashed to each other during low tide. Low and level tidal flats stretched out and away to our section of the beach, where the lights of restaurants had begun to glow against the sunset.

It gets dark quickly in the tropics, and the place was feeling as if maybe Jack Nicholson had gotten a job caretaking there while he finished his novel, so we walked back to our hotel.

One of the beachfront restaurants advertises "Broken English spoken perfect," and I asked the owner about the abandoned hotel. He said it had been closed for two years, after its owners had gone bankrupt. They had been bad people, he said, and they left owing the locals a lot of money.

He looked out over the empty tables of his restaurant and said that things had been bad since the Boxing Day tsunami. Political conflict in Thailand, SARS and now the economic crisis had hurt the tourist industry. There were lots of empty hotels and restaurants all over Thailand. Lots of unfinished buildings. Lots of backruptcies. Lots of workers not going to get their money.

I was translating his broken English pretty freely, but this morning's Bangkok Post says the Tourism Authority of Thailand forecasts 14.3 million tourists this year, while the Association of Hotels forecasts only 12 million, a figure 16 percent lower. In that 16 percent is the difference between profit and loss for hundreds of thousands of people. It made me think that government statistics are optimistic lies, no matter where you are.

It also explained why we were paying half price for our hotel room, and why every restaurant we walked by had a person posted on the sidewalk beckoning us in, and why, in the hotel's dining room tonight, we were alone, eating in front of a couple of cooks and three wait-staff and a long table piled high with fresh-caught seafood. It explains why each single, middle-aged male tourist in the bars is surrounded by three or four laughing bar girls, and it explains how quickly and easily a tourist industry can get overbuilt and how vulnerable the whole endeavor can be to the slightest downturn.

It made me glad I wasn't alone and lonely and susceptible to the desperate pheremones riding the sea breeze. It made me wonder how they were doing down at Amanpuri. Probably pretty well, as the world's royalty doesn't seem to have suffered much during this recession. But I won't be able to find out. I'm no longer writing for Travel and Leisure, and even if the Idaho Mountain Express would spring for it, in a world of bankruptcies and unpaid workers, I've lost the innocent ability to enjoy myself at $1,000 a night.

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