THAILAND & BEYOND BY BOAT
Rosy future for yachties' favourite port
Phuket welcomes increasing numbers of boat lovers
Phuket is now the yachting capital of Asia, and its marine industry just can't seem to stop growing. Proof of that was evident during the recent PIMEX Boat Show, held at the Royal Phuket Marina and attended by just about everyone who has an interest in boating in Asia - or so it appeared.
At the on-the-water display berths, crowds of people file past sleek motor yachts. Some even come aboard and look around the cabins, admiring the amenities. A delivery skipper of one luxury yacht stands proudly at the helm behind tinted, wrap-around windows on an enclosed fly bridge where state-of-the-art electronic navigational equipment is at his command. Men and women move slowly past single-keel boats with newly painted hulls, teakwood decks and polished brass fittings.
Under a hot sun, men who have wives and families back in Bangkok, Hong Kong or Singapore stare up at the tall masts and then read the names of each boat. Might they be dreaming about setting sail in the emerald waters of Phangnga Bay or escaping to the Similan Islands?
Tanned crew members from a Phuket yacht-charter company, dressed smartly in polo shirts and shorts and scuffed, leather deck shoes, stand by the stern of a brand new motor catamaran. Obediently they await orders while sweating out buckets of beer from last night's shore party. Up on the sundeck a lovely hostess pops the cork from a bottle of chilled champagne for a potential client who has flown in from Moscow.
Inside the exhibition hall, booths are manned by boat builders and suppliers, boat brokers, yacht-charter firms, marine publications, race-regatta organisers, marine-insurance companies, sailing schools, plus villa and condominium property developers. And there's even a booth rented by a private jet-charter service which promises "six star" service to high-rollers wanting to soar in, hop aboard their mega yachts and cruise away in style.
It was here in the exhibition hall that I met Jeroen Deknatel and Bill O'Leary, two early pioneers in the Phuket marine industry. The pair are quick to point out that other individuals have been credited with starting the development of marine leisure in Phuket; men like Vincent Tabateau, Andy Dowden and Jan Jacobs. Dowden is actually the one responsible for running the boat show.
My first question is, What makes Phuket so special for yachting?
"One of the main attractions is the cruising grounds," O'Leary explains. "They're in calm seas, immense, diverse and easy to navigate. Phuket is situated at latitude 8 North - perfect for moderate weather. And from north of Langkawi to a latitude of 11 North in Burma, the entire area has the cleanest water in the Andaman Sea. One reason people are drawn to Phuket is the gin-clear water found in only a very few parts of the globe."
"And you have easy access by air and good marinas," Deknatel adds. "Plus there's been an increase in technical expertise for repair and maintenance, and good supply lines."
According to Jeanette Skelton, event manager at the Royal Phuket Marina, the island is poised to become one of the world's great sailing destinations. "The sailing here is year-round with some of the most stunning islands and beaches in the world. We can now offer a five-star service at the Royal Phuket Marina with up-market shopping and dining facilities. We also have stunning villas and condominiums on offer, so yachties could have their boats parked on the doorstep. There are very few places in the world where all this is possible."
In the last couple of years the government has taken some very positive steps to help the marine industry flourish.
The Thai Marine Business Association (TMBA) was formed at the government's request, with Southeast Asia Yachting magazine reporting that the organisation has been instrumental in pushing for the updating of marine laws. Vincent Tabuteau of Asia Marine, a TMBA committee member, explains, "The idea of the association was to approach government officials and discuss obstacles facing the industry, mainly due to archaic laws made at a time when the marine leisure industry was not significant in Thailand. Approaching the government in an unofficial capacity can cause problems. However, entering into dialogue with an official association is, of course, a whole different story. And so the TMBA was formed."
"The single, most important decision the government has taken in this industry," Bill O'Leary believes, "was reducing the import and excise taxes on foreign-produced recreational yachts in 2004 from 21 per cent down to just seven per cent VAT."
So what does the future hold for Phuket?
"Super Yachts and Mega Yachts are the next wave," says Deknatel, "and once the Mergui Archipelago [in Burma] opens up for everyone, Phuket will remain the gateway to this area. Phuket will be the Caribbean of Southeast Asia."