Koh Samui has changed. The island refocused some 25 years ago from the backpacker crowd to more up-market visitors and at present is pushing to be one of the region's premier island destinations. Right from the start the main draw was the Chaweng area but access to Samui was limited through the lack of airport and the ferry was the only means of transportation to and from the mainland until Samui's privately developed and operated airport opened in 1989 by Bangkok Airways.
In the last 10 years both international and Thai investors have accelerated the island's development and thus changed what was once a laid-back coconut-strewn fishing island into a mid-market destination and more recently is aiming even higher into the branded world of high-end luxury. A recent key growth component has been the opening of the airport to Thai Airways and a handful of overseas carriers.
Historically speaking tourist arrivals – compared to Phuket's – have been sluggish due to the constrained access associated to Bangkok Airways monopolization of the airport. Over a 10-year period starting in 1998 guest arrivals at tourism establishments only grew at an average of 1.5% per annum; capping off at 854,475 in 2007. More significant to the market is the total visitor arrivals at Samui airport which over the years 1995 to 2007 grew at an average compounded rate of 9%, and for the period of 2003 2007 was up to 16.8%.
On Samui, there is clearly a growth in tourist numbers staying in alternative accommodation such as in villas and condos versus hotels. This is also happening in Bali.
In order to handle the accelerated tourist arrivals Samui needs to upgrade its infrastructure to accommodate capacity and supply growth. In keeping in line with this needed upgrade Bangkok Airways has been modernising its fleet, retiring many smaller turboprop planes in favour of higher-capacity Airbus A319 aircraft. Also, the Samui airport terminal expansion was fully completed this year and included both domestic and international areas.
There is also talk of a new airport in the south of the island but this is a long term planning option at the moment. The current runway length is 4,700 feet but larger aircraft from long-haul destinations require a minimum of 6,000 feet. Surat Thani’s airport is equipped with a 9,000-foot runaway but increasingly passengers look for door-to-door access on holiday trips.
Samui's ring road stretches around the island with new access points to areas such as Taling Ngam, Phang Ka Bay and Thong Krut. The opening of Tesco and Big C means a step away from the highly centralized Chaweng area.
The island's first golf course opened a few years ago and demand for new international schools, hospitals and tourism attractions grows.
Phuket and Samui
While many similarities between Phuket and Samui exist, Samui is in a far earlier stage of development. And while Phuket has a mainland bridge connection it also has many other advantages in terms of relative ease of movement of its tourists, commodities and has a strong economy to spur further growth.
Neighbouring Islands Development
Both Phuket and Samui have seen new development on outlying islands and neighbouring areas as new tourism destinations. Phuket's neighbours Krabi, Phang Nga Bay and Khao Lak are undergoing new development; while in the Gulf of Thailand, Ko Phangan and Kho Tao – both near Samui – are developing at significant rates. It will be interesting to see how both islands cope in the long term.
Bill Barnett is Managing Director of C9 Hotelworks (c9hotelworks.com) a Phuket-based hotel and residential property consulting firm.