Bye-bye backpacker; Koh Samui's amazing development, speed of change
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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 Beach and Maenam Beach, 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 transformative 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 along the northeast coast. And a number of big names have already found special locations scattered around the island and opened there. In 2017 these included Four Seasons, Conrad Samui, Banyan Tree, W Resorts, Six Senses Samui, Anantara Lawana and some smaller, regional hotel groups.