Phuket's star rises globally

Phuket today is an increasingly popular destination for international tourists, its image having spread globally since the Indian Ocean tsunami hit the resort island 10 years ago today.

"Nowadays, Phuket can claim to have good connectivity for air travel. Airlines from the Middle East, Scandinavia, Hong Kong, South Korea, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and mainland China are operating direct flights into Phuket, taking tourists there," said Ittirit Kinglake, president of the Tourism Council of Thailand.

Phuket has also become a second home for many foreigners, he added.

The island first became a tourist destination in 1981 when Thai Airways International started operating flights from Bangkok. Tens year later, air capacity was packed and Phuket laid claims to being "the fastest-growth resort in ASEAN".

In 2004, however, when the devastating tsunami hit the island and many other beaches along the Andaman coast, the tourism sector in the area experienced enormous damage and business plunged to almost zero immediately after the disaster.

"Hotels faced single-digit occupancy rates after the event, but the island bounced back to normal within just two months thanks to the great relief measures," said Wichit Na-Ranong, one of the country's most recognised hotel veterans and owner of Indigo Pearl Group in Phuket.

"Sweden was the first country to send charter flights directly to the island [after the disaster], followed by a mass of European tourists, while Asian visitors at the time felt the fear of death, but soon afterwards flocked to the island."

In the year of the tsunami, some 5 million tourists visited Phuket, 30 percent of them foreigners. The island in 2013 welcomed 12 million visitors, in a year when 24 million foreign visitors came to the Kingdom.

Moreover, the ratio of foreign and local visitors switched around completely over those nine years, from 30:70 to 70:30, Wichit said.

"Phuket now is the best place for the international community, and this could continue through another 10 years. However, fundamentals and competency need to be improved, lest there be further congestion," he said.

The real image of Phuket and its people came through on the world stage straight after the tsunami struck, with local and international recovery teams quickly helping to rebuild the damaged parts of the island, while strenuous efforts were made to promote its beautiful beaches again.

Moreover, international organisations and aid units not only helped in Phuket's recovery, but also in providing relief for the neighbouring provinces of Phang Nga and Krabi, which were also severely hit by the tsunami.

Visitors from new markets have come to the island in growing numbers during the past decade, notably from the Middle East, China, Russia and India, as well as from other nations in the West.

The American Chamber of Commerce has also stepped in to help Phuket, by drafting a long-term plan to reposition the island as a quality destination, as well as to reinforce branding and marketing in international markets.

Despite the severe political problems faced by the Kingdom during the last high season, Phuket remained an attractive resort destination when compared with Bangkok and other key destinations.

In fact, the island has remained resilient over the past few decades, despite having faced many crises, including the tsunami, airport closures in Bangkok, widespread flooding around the country, political problems - and now intense competition.

Many hospitality-business operators on the island believe it can become an even more popular destination for tourists in the long term.