Koh Samui, Thailand; development, a boutique, luxurious resort

Bye-bye backpacker; Koh Samui's amazing development, speed of change

The level of development on Samui might be described as 'midway'. Its days as a backpacker haven with simple huts in the coconut groves evaporated within ten years of the opening of the airport here in 1989. It is far from being an urban resort, too, with built-up areas covering only a small portion of the island. Old-timers might lament the urbanization of the northeast corner of the island between Chaweng and Maenam beaches, but this also serves its purpose in bringing more modern facilities and varied lifestyles to the island. With more development, and urbanization, Samui can cater to a new, more up-market portion of the global tourism market. And that's the kind of change that both the local residents and the Thai government want.

The speed and game-changing nature of Samui's recent development has come under regular attack by the visitors who came before, and loved Samui as they first found it. But the dream to keep the island as a time capsule for the pleasure of backpackers and early-comers is a narrow one not shared by many locals, either. Most Thais crave development, more tourists and more employment opportunities for their hoards of growing children.

But all is not well in paradise, and some concerned observers of the Samui scene fear the island's unplanned rush for development may see the island consumed by the 'Pattaya syndrome'. In that infamous example, Pattaya's developers destroyed that resort's original asset, the natural beauty of the beach, in their hunger for quick profits. Pattaya survived due to two back-up assets; its proximity to Bangkok and the new airport, and a new reliance on the commercial sex trade.

For Samui, where all the assets are wrapped up in beautiful beaches, following the Pattaya route might kill the golden goose.

However, Samui has another major advantage of the kind that Pattaya did not – it has countless different beaches, bays and rocky coves where resort hotels can hide and allow their guests to luxuriate in their own private worlds, little affected by ugly development of the commercial areas. And a number of big names have already found special locations and opened here. In 2013 these included Four Seasons, Conrad, Banyan Tree, W Resorts, Six Senses, Anantara and some smaller, regional hotel groups.

Samui is becoming a 'mature' beach destination with modern lifestyles

Koh Samui is fast becoming a 'mature' destination. What does it mean for the future of this former coconut island and one-time hippie haven?

A wide range of infrastructure; The island now boasts reasonably good infrastructure, including an international airport, good roads, efficient ferry transport on and off the island, modern hospitals, some evening entertainment and even an international school. It offers shopping facilities ranging from open-air street markets, local fresh markets to large, modern shopping malls. Visitors can find a range of foodstuffs, liquor and wine from around the world.

Attractions and things to do include many quality spas, clubs, countless quality restaurants, beach bars, a modern cinema, two golf courses and sail training courses for kids. There are tourist-type attractions like elephant rides, a jungle zip-line, the Fisherman's Village at Bophut and safari tours over the central mountain. It's easy to go sailing, diving and boat cruising. Social life for resident foreigners often revolves around meeting friends in the many seaside restaurants and bars.

Buy a villa in paradise? And if you love the island and its many lifestyle attributes enough, you can easily purchase your own condominium, or villa, and keep coming back. The growing number of Westerners who have retired here, with or without their own condo or villa, is testimony to the fact that the relentless development of the island since the 1989 airport opening is proving popular and is paying off.

The advantages of a 'mature' destination are obvious to many, and particularly to the resort developers, the frontline beneficiaries, and to the government that sees its annual tax-take rising year-on-year. Wealthier visitors who can afford the 4- and 5-star accommodations, fine restaurants and golf courses are as happy with an island crammed with modern services and facilities as are the local villagers whose children now work in them, and no longer need to leave Samui for the major cities in search of work.

can Koh Samui survive development into a mature beach resort?

But just how 'mature'? Samui, in reality, is still quite far from being a fully mature destination of the kind we might find in the Mediterranean – and to which many Thai business people aspire. The development process is relatively new, and then, most of the growth and change is restricted to the island's northeast corner, leaving much of island slumbering in the clutches of other eras. The far south of the island has barely changed from a fishing village. The west coast is a vast coconut plantation with just s few drops of sophistication here and there. The northern beaches are a hotchpotch of cheap beach bungalows plus 3- and 4-star resorts interspersed with occasional, world-class jewels like W Retreat and Four Seasons Samui.

So the future promises an on-going march along the path to modernization. Samui's move towards boutique and stylish hotels seems unstoppable, as does the expansion of residential estates to satisfy both Thai and foreign demand for tropical island homes. So long as vacant beachfront land remains, and old bungalows can be redeveloped, 4-star resorts will continue to appear like mushrooms. The number of visitors can only be expected to continue the predictable yearly growth. In their lock-step march with this increase in people and money, the retail, entertainment and health industries will continue their expansions. For Samui there is little reason to expect anything but years of growth-on-growth in virtually all sectors. Future worries that interested parties should focus on revolve around the government's visions, or lack of it, and its ability to control all aspects of growth so that Samui matures into a truly sustainable destination, for the lucky escape from oblivion that befell Pattaya is not an option for Koh Samui.

Currently, Samui satisfies huge numbers of visitors from the 3-star and 4-star middle class sectors. It needs to maintain this ability, while continuing to add layers of sophistication that will attract ever more discerning, wealthier 5-star clients to fill the growing number of boutique resorts and pool villas.

by John Everingham