But not everything is up in Samui’s rising tide. While the luxury market expands at a rapid clip, last year the island actually lost 1,800 hotel rooms, or 11% of its total supply—most of them at the budget level.
“As Samui becomes more sophisticated, the lower-end tourist trade has been pushed out to other islands like Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Tao,” says Bill Barnett, a Thailand-based hotel consultant, who penned a provocative white paper on the island’s future chances.
Skewing more upscale might seem like a sound strategy, but as Barnett notes, few destinations can expect to thrive by catering primarily to the high-end. “The Maldives has sustained itself as a niche island, but it’s the rare exception,” he says. To weather the ups and downs of today’s volatile tourism market, Samui has to retain economy and midrange choices alongside its exclusive resorts.
The other concern is the island’s quaint time capsule of an airport. Adorable as it may be, it’s too small to accommodate the widebody jets and long-haul flights that Samui needs in order to justify all the new hotels and tourism investment. Complicating matters further, the airport is privately owned by Bangkok Airways—which, having a near-monopoly on routes to Samui, charges a premium for the privilege.
“A flight from Bangkok to Phuket is half the price [of a flight to Samui],” says Barnett. (Phuket is Thailand’s most popular island destination; Samui ranks a distant second.) “If you compare the two islands, the main difference is that Phuket can handle charters, low-cost carriers, and more direct flights from abroad. It’s obvious where the gap is.” A debate has raged for years over whether to expand or relocate the airport—though the decision ultimately rests with Bangkok Airways. Many industry observers (including Barnett) say the airlift limitations will strangle Samui’s future growth.
Then again, others—like me—believe Samui has already grown enough. Where will the island be in five, 10, or 20 years? Could it someday displace Phuket as Thailand’s #1 beach destination? Watch this space....
Peter Jon Lindberg is Travel + Leisure's editor at large.