Pioneer, Phuket style
As Phuket’s economy struggles to recover from the effects of a pandemic that decimated the local tourist economy for nearly two years, it is worth remembering how the island grew from a tropical holiday destination rather obscure to one of the most vibrant and sought after playgrounds in the world for those who want winter sun, sand, recreation and entertainment found nowhere else.
Grenville Fordham on the Bay. Photo: Brian Stamm
Thai tourism authorities have led successful campaigns to bring the country to the attention of the international travel industry, while in Phuket a group of Western entrepreneurs have also been instrumental in the development of the infrastructure to support enthusiastic visitors who were looking for the amazing Thailand they were promised.
Grenville Fordham was born in Yorkshire, England and lived in Malta and Kenya as a young man. After a diverse career in the hospitality and building materials industries, he moved to Thailand in 1995. He worked in the Bangkok media as a writer at Thailand Time, editor at Living in Thailand magazine and as a freelance writer for international publications.
In 1998 he moved to Phuket in search of the fresh air and easy life that brings most expats to the island. But rather than spending his time relaxing on the beach, he launched the media company, Image Asia, best known today for Phuket’s first food guide, Where to eat, and the bimonthly print and online showcase of Phuket, Phang Nga and Krabi, Window on Phuket. He also published Exclusive homes in Phuket and the Phuket Property Map provide concrete information to potential property buyers in Phuket, as well as The streets of Phuket, a detailed (pre-Google) road map of the island.
“I started with a small office above my restaurant, Poo’s Beach, where we created a beach atmosphere with a sandy floor downstairs, while upstairs I designed brochures and press releases. for any business that needed promotion.”
Grenville quickly became one of the most active supporters of the Phuket events. He worked as an editor of Phuket Magazine then for several years he managed the media for the famous Phuket King’s Cup regatta when the regatta grew from 50 to 100 entries.
“I had my first sailing experience, during the 1998 King’s Cup, on a 32-foot monohull and I immediately fell in love with sailing,” he recalls.
Over the next five years, in addition to expanding its publishing businesses, together with business partner Andy Dowden, Grenville designed and developed Thailand’s premier boat show, the Phuket International Marine Expo (PIMEX), enhancing the international profile of the Thai yachting industry and putting Phuket on the map for the growing yachting community with growing interest from regional players.
“One of the industry’s biggest challenges has been negotiating the reduction of taxes on yacht imports. They were considered luxury goods and were taxed at over 200%. I joined, then I became president of the Marine Alliance of Thailand [now Thailand Yachting Business Association – TYBA], a group of lobbyists working with the government to lower this tax and thereby facilitate the growth of Thailand’s water recreation industry. We have succeeded; import taxes were reduced to zero percent, leaving only 7% VAT. This unique achievement by determined individuals led directly to the thriving marine recreation industry of today.
July 2004 saw another first for Grenville’s Image Asia, with the inaugural Phuket Raceweek, a summer regatta where monsoon winds allowed for better racing, which was voted ‘Best Asian Regatta’ at the 2011 Asia Boating Awards.
2008 saw him embark on shipbuilding. Working with business partner Bob Mott and employing a skilled local workforce, Niña, a 38ft fast cruising catamaran, was launched just in time for Six Senses Phuket Race Week 2009, taking top honors in a field of seven competitive multihulls.
Supported by founding authors Bill O’Leary and Andy Dowden, Grenville co-authors, designs and publishes Southeast Asia Pilot, the definitive guide to sailing in Southeast Asia and beyond. The book is published every few years, enjoys worldwide sales in print and electronic formats, and is the essential handbook for anyone sailing or chartering a yacht in Asia.
Besides yachting and publishing, Grenville has been a strong supporter of Phuket business clubs and charities. He joined the British Business Association of Phuket and served two terms as President. During his tenure, the club made numerous charitable donations, including to the Vachira Hospital Children’s Unit, the Island Retirement Home and Childwatch. Through his business, he has also supported young people sailing through various avenues, including the purchase of dinghies to train underprivileged young people in Phuket and Koh Samui.
In 2017, he was awarded the rare Honorary Life Membership of the British Chamber of Commerce in Thailand (BCCT) in recognition of his service to British business interests in Phuket.
He joined the Phuket Yacht Club in its early days, originally supporting club racing as a sponsor, and later served as chairman of the committee that designed and built the current clubhouse/restaurant in Chalong, then was both club treasurer and commodore.
In 2019, Grenville decided to change course and get rid of his media projects and responsibilities. “I’m busy these days with more personal projects. I’m done with the corporate world and plan to spend some time writing and traveling. I bought a Toyota Commuter van to convert it into a motorhome. Once it’s fully finished, my wife and I will spend weeks on the road exploring Thailand.
On where Phuket should look for future tourism growth, Grenville had this to say: “I’m not alone in believing that the type of mass tourism we saw a year or two before Covid is not is not what Phuket should be. see if sustainable growth is a goal. In this context, it is important to note that we cannot go back to the days of minimal shopping opportunities and deserted beaches; that won’t happen either. In my opinion, it’s also not an exclusive focus on the super-rich who will give the island what it needs to move forward.
“What I think Phuket should do is a three-pronged approach: First, focus on FIT tourists – those who can come on a hotel + flight package but are free to spend their money where they want. Then, do whatever is necessary to encourage yacht tourism, including clarifying bareboat charter regulations and finalizing the superyacht charter issue.
“And finally, take the obvious step towards legalizing gambling – and I mean Macau-style luxury casino operations – on the island of Phuket, combined with the designation of Phuket as a free zone. In every case, we should be looking at lower overall numbers with higher spending per ‘tourism unit’, combined with maximum indirect economic impact, especially more, better paying and more diverse jobs.