Sutham Phanthusak, the owner of Pattaya's best-known entertainment business, has a grim face as he ponders the challenges the resort city faces.
Sutham Phanthusak, owner of Tiffany’s Show, frets about Pattaya’s latest blow, the Asean summit riots: ‘‘I worry hotels with tight cash flow might close down.’’ TAWATCHAI KEMGUMNERD
The Trang native who founded Tiffany's Show three decades ago has seen Pattaya evolve from a tranquil seaside resort, renowned for its sunsets, into a town bustling with activity and nightlife.
"Pattaya itself has potential. But its growth has come with poor-quality zoning and management. It is killing itself, which is quite regrettable," he says.
But reviving Pattaya's business has now become an urgent question of survival after protesters from the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) violently disrupted the Asean summit on April 11. The incident was a prelude to street fighting in Bangkok a few days later.
"Pattaya survived many crises in the past. First was the Gulf War in 1991. Then we encountered the Sars epidemic and bird flu. If we can compare those to catching a cold, Pattaya now has cancer," says Mr Sutham, who also owns the five-star Woodlands Hotel and Resort.
"This could be the end of Pattaya after 40 years."
Even before the H1N1 influenza outbreak, the occupancy rate of five-star hotels in Pattaya stood at 10% in April, compared with a typical rate of 70-80%. Occupancy at lower-ranked hotels was only 30-40% last month.
With 1,490 cases of H1N1 flu now reported worldwide, tourism globally is braced for a heavy blow.
In any case, Mr Sutham hopes the government's efforts to calm political tensions can help resuscitate the battered tourism sector.
"Even if the political situation returns to normal, tourism will take a year to recover because it is about advance planning. I worry we could see hotels with tight cashflow close down," he says.
Mr Sutham adds that Pattaya desperately needs to improve its zoning - and shed its image as a mafia haven and a hub of the sex trade - if it wants to attract more sophisticated tourists.
"How can Pattaya attract quality tourists if it has no proper zoning for beer bars and night pubs and allows go-go dancers to perform in the middle of the streets?" he asks.
In his view, rebranding Pattaya will also require an overhaul of its police force - which he accuses of taking far too long to examine crimes. For him, the ability of protesters to break into the Asean summit venue was yet another instance of the police's inadequacy.
"The fact that the protesters were outnumbered by security officers from the police and military should have allowed the government to block them without violence," he says. "There is just one road leading to the hotel entrance and the other side of the hotel is enclosed by the beach. There were 1,600 UDD protesters compared with more than 2,000 officers."
But he dismisses reports that Pattaya residents participated in the turmoil as members of the "blue shirts" opposing anti-government protesters.
"There are very few locals among the blue shirts. I would say fewer than 1% of them are locals," he said.