It’s the money: Tour operator commissions key factor undermining Phuket marine tourism safety

It’s the money: Tour operator commissions key factor undermining Phuket marine tourism safety

The discussion, titled ‘The Expectations of the Phuket Hotel and Tourism industries from the Phuket marine industry, and vice versa’ was held at the Boat Point meeting room at Phuket Boat Lagoon and featured leading figures from the island’s boating fraternity.

The panel speakers comprised Lyndon Ellis, General Manager of Anantara Vacation Club Mai Khao Phuket; Zara Tremlett, the former GM of Yacht Haven Marina; retired international insurance broker Ian Lancaster; and Phuket Yacht Club Commodore Scott Duncanson.

Wicky Sundram, Executive Director at Phuket Boat Lagoon and one of the key organisers of the event along with Harry Usher of Lady Pie, was moderator for the event.

The panel in its presentation covered many of the clearly failing aspects of Phuket’s marine tourism industry, with specific focus on boat tours, including de facto overloading (as opposed to breach of number of passengers permitted in accordance with standing regulations) and boat designs that would obviously not pass international standards.

However, unchallenged was the key perspective that ‘bashing’ or otherwise ‘harshly criticising’ those responsible for enforcing boating regulations was unlikely to provide the results sought. Consensus was that the way forward was to engage with local officials to support them as much as possible to improve the industry, especially with regards to safety.

Mr Lancaster also pointed out that he had heard from his interviews throughout the marine industry that the Thai government was taking the issue ‘very seriously’ and that the concerns had reached all the way up to the prime minister’s office and hence that positive suggestions were likely to be well received by those in a position to effect genuine change.

Yet, regarding the commissions demanded by tour operators, Mr Lancaster, who retired to Phuket with more than 35 years’ experience in insurance, pointed out that his research had discovered that commissions on tour tickets tended to account for 25% of the total cost of operating a boat tour. All other costs associated with operating a tour boat were drawn from the remaining 75% of ticket revenues.

One attendee at the event, who raised the issue with a question from the audience, pointed out that he was aware of some operators demanding as much as 50% of the tour cost from each paying tourist.

This single aspect, beyond greed, was depriving wannabe safe, reliable tour boat operators the funds needed to provide safe boats and tours and added such financial pressure that operators were ‘forced’ to put a boat to sea in possibly dangerous conditions just to keep the operation financially viable.

The only other option for honest operators is to remain uncompetitive and eventually go out of business, leaving just the unscrupulous operators the entire level of demand to themselves.

“Losing (revenue) from not going out on just one day can easily mean that the boat has to go out four or five more times just to recover the losses from that one day,” Mr Lancaster explained.

Mr Lancaster suggested a government policy to cover operators from losses in the event the government issues a warning preventing tour boats from leaving port for safety reasons.

QSI International School Phuket

“This is very common in many industries around the world,” Mr Lancaster told The Phuket News after the event.

Lyndon Ellis explained from the position of hotels, which have tour desks in their resorts where tourists book boat tours directly with the agent, that the relationship between the tour desk and the hotel was usually direct with the finance department, “which are focussed on the numbers”, he said.

However, Mr Ellis pointed out that he was aware of the issue and that as soon as he sees a ‘quiet conversation’ between a tour operator representative and the tour desk attendant that he makes a bee-line straight for them to intervene as soon as possible to prevent any clandestine agreement between the two.

Mr Ellis strongly suggested that any persons with concerns about the commissions demanded by tour operators bring it to the attention of the hotel management responsible for the day-to-day operations of the hotel instead.

“These people are much more focussed on the quality of the service provided and the tour rather than just the numbers,” he said.

An outstanding suggestion from the panel was for the hotels themselves to devise their own rating system of preferred boat tour operators which would be able to drive safety and quality tours to the fore.

“This would include from the moment guests get in the minivan,” Mr Ellis explained, adding that many complaints from guests departing hotels on day tours was about the unsafe driving of the minivan to and from the hotel itself.

In concluding the event, Brent Harper from local boat-building company Marineworx, based at Boat Lagoon, gave a presentation highlighting the effectiveness of a high-buoyancy foam that could be added to the existing fleet of tour boats to make them literally unsinkable.

“Foam-panelling is not new elsewhere in the world as a boat-building technique, it’s been around since the ’90s, but the cost of a new PET foam has fallen so much that it is now cost effective to have it added,” he explained.

“We can calculate how much foam is needed and it can be built into the panels. Thai-built boats are all fibreglass panels, and if the worst happens, it just sinks,” he explained.

“If that does happen, at least the people in the water will still have the boat to hold onto or climb on – if it overturns – until help arrives,” he said.