Floating football field keeps Thai tourism blues at bay

Floating football field keeps Thai tourism blues at bay

With its stunning limestone cliffs towering over stilt houses surrounded by azure waters, the island of Panyee is a typical Thai paradise. But it's not mother nature drawing tourists here - it's a floating football pitch.

Thailand's tourism industry has taken a battering this year following months of protests, the May military coup, the subsequent imposition of martial law and the brutal slaying of two young Britons on the holiday isle of Koh Tao in September.

The Immigration Bureau says there has been a near 9 per cent drop in tourist arrivals between January and October compared to the same period in 2013 - a painful blow for the millions of Thais whose livelihoods depend on the industry.

But in Panyee, part of Thailand's picturesque Phang Nga province, foreign visitors keep coming, thanks to excitement over the community's innovative and highly unusual football pitch.

Nestled next to the island's ferry pier, the 16-by-25-metre pitch has become something of a national treasure after an advertising campaign by a Thai bank in 2010 made the fishing community locally famous for their dedication to football.

"What do you do when you come to Panyee Island? You must see the floating football pitch," beams island chief Muhammad Prasanpan, who says 50,000 baht (S$1,896) to 70,000 baht now comes in from tourists each day.

That represents a fivefold income increase for the 320 household-island since a decade ago when fishing was its mainstay, he says.

The island has long had a reputation for football-obsessed inhabitants who have refused to let something as inconvenient as a complete lack of flat surfaces hold them back from practising the "Beautiful Game".

The first floating pitch was built 30 years ago but was a dangerous hotchpotch of wooden boards knocked together with rusty nails. Inspired by the players' dedication, TMB Bank commissioned a series of adverts charting the local team's success in a football tournament despite the rickety pitch.

After the campaign aired, the islanders, with help from local authorities, built themselves a new - and crucially nail-free - floating pitch. Since those adverts aired in 2011, Panyee has become famous both locally - and increasingly internationally - for football.

But the pitch has done more than attract new arrivals. It has also kept the island's younger inhabitants from leaving.

Depopulation is often a major problem in Thailand's poor communities, with youngsters travelling significant distances to find better-paid work - usually to support large families back home.

In Panyee, the young are staying put. The island's population has increased to 1,800 from 1,200 over the last 10 years.

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