But not everything is up in Samui’s rising tide. While theluxury market expands at a rapid clip, last year the island actually lost 1,800hotel rooms, or 11% of its total supply—most of them at the budget level.
“As Samui becomes more sophisticated, the lower-end touristtrade has been pushed out to other islands like Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Tao,” saysBill Barnett, a Thailand-based hotel consultant, who penned a provocative whitepaper on the island’s future chances.
Skewing more upscale might seem like a sound strategy, butas Barnett notes, few destinations can expect to thrive by catering primarilyto the high-end. “The Maldives has sustained itself as a niche island, but it’sthe rare exception,” he says. To weather the ups and downs of today’s volatiletourism market, Samui has to retain economy and midrange choices alongside itsexclusive resorts.
The other concern is the island’s quaint time capsule of anairport. Adorable as it may be, it’s too small to accommodate the widebody jetsand long-haul flights that Samui needs in order to justify all the new hotelsand tourism investment. Complicating matters further, the airport is privatelyowned 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 aflight to Samui],” says Barnett. (Phuket is Thailand’s most popular islanddestination; Samui ranks a distant second.) “If you compare the two islands,the main difference is that Phuket can handle charters, low-cost carriers, andmore direct flights from abroad. It’s obvious where the gap is.” A debate hasraged for years over whether to expand or relocate the airport—though thedecision ultimately rests with Bangkok Airways. Many industry observers(including Barnett) say the airlift limitations will strangle Samui’s futuregrowth.
Then again, others—like me—believe Samui has already grownenough. Where will the island be in five, 10, or 20 years? Could it somedaydisplace Phuket as Thailand’s #1 beach destination? Watch this space....
Peter Jon Lindberg is Travel + Leisure's editor at large.