Hotelier Michael Gaarde-Nielsen showcases “new” Karon beach, Phuket

Hotel Manager Michael Gaarde-Nielsen is in a prime position to give the best possible update from Karon Beach on Phuket, a beach previously very much dominated by tourists from the Nordic countries.

Nowadays, this is a much more international destination in terms of its visitors – just like the rest of the island. And it has been cleaned up, as part of the well-publicized Phuket beach clean-up campaign initiated in 2014 (where food stalls, massage huts and illegal stalls, as well as most umbrellas and sunbeds were removed). And the local businesses are increasingly being spruced up!

Michael Gaarde-Nielsen manages Centara Grand Beach Resort Phuket, which opened in October 2010 as the Thai brand’s Phuket-based five-star flagship resort, designed with an interesting colonial style that in the region is known as ‘Peranakan’ culture, and in Thailand called ‘Sino-Portuguese’ architecture. Perched on the hillside, at the northern end of Karon, this five-star property is also one of the few hotels that sit beachfront there (directly at the edge of the sand) and stands out with is pastel pink-hued facades!

“Tourism has changed a lot in Karon and Kata, and even Phuket as a whole has changed a lot over the last five-six years, from being a six-month destination to an all-year-round destination. And what you are seeing in Karon and Kata is also the development of all the shops and restaurants; old shop houses being replaced with new more attractive buildings,” begins the Dane over lunch at the resort.

“The beach road has been renovated and all power lines put underground, as one of the few places on the island, along with Old Phuket Town. The whole area has developed into a proper destination,” he continues.

Since November 2015 Karon Beach has so called ‘umbrella zones’, which represents 10 per cent of the beach, operated by the municipality under the management zone policy, where tourists are allowed to bring their own sun lounges and umbrellas. On the rest of the beach they can still bring mats and towels for private use.

“The beach looks very pristine, we are getting a lot of feedback that the beach looks more prestigious than before. Now it’s like a postcard that you can take and send home. There is the ten per cent zone on this beach near the mid of Karon beach, where you can enjoy drinks. It was set up a couple of months after the beach clean up started. All other vendors move out when this zone was set up. It’s definitely a positive development.”

Michael is confident the “new” beach will remain clean. There are places where these things are not allowed at all along Thailand’s coast but Phuket has the ten per cent zone.

Reflecting on the tourism to Centara Grand in Karon, he says that the hotel follows the trend in Karon as a whole. “We used to have a lot of the Scandinavian market that then turned into Russians but has lately become more international in its mix. Before, you didn’t have the Chinese coming in, while they now visit all year round, along with Australians, British and South Africans these days. It’s still determined based on season. In the winter dry season it’s more of the European market coming here on long-haul flights, and you still have all the Scandinavians coming even though they prefer to go more outside Phuket. But we still have a good base. Many of them are families, returning guests that know the area. We have people who have stayed here every year since we opened in 2010. Some have been here twice a year!”

And Michael should know, as he has spent long enough time to witness this development in person; first in Karon and then in Kata (the next beach further south on Phuket) with other Centara Hotels & Resorts properties.

In describing the five-star resort he currently manages the Dane highlights its architecture: “Of course the uniqueness of the structure and that fits very much to Phuket differentiates us. You don’t really see many other hotels that have that of this size. And then the waterpark with a jumping station and water slides, and we also boast an adult-only, infinity pool overlooking the beach and the ocean.

“You don’t feel that it’s busy when you walk around when there are often up to 600 guests in the hotel. Of course you will see more people at the pool but around the gardens and the adult pool it’s very quiet.

Guests staying in the Villas also entitled to Club privileges, which include the Club Lounge – where we are conducting the interview – with its 200 sq. m of indoor and outdoor terrace space offering more privacy.

All in all, the resort also has eight F&B outlets, plus of course a spa, so guests can spread on many venues. Centara has also launched the beach club concept COAST at this property, where guests can – bare feet – enjoy dining and drinking paired with DJ music.

“You sit more or less on the beach, with good food, including a lot of seafood, on the menu.”

The resort is also a draw in the neighbourhood: “From our sister property next door we actually have some people who comes down to use our facilities. People who come to the beach in this end otherwise are people who know the area, who have stayed a long time in Phuket, consisting in both locals and foreigners. And so, more and more people get to know our beach club and come to utilize it.”

Coming for a weekend trip from say Singapore or Bangkok is of course very much possible.

“Fly out Friday afternoon and back late Sunday, or stay until Monday morning. Find a resort to stay in and use it as a base to explore Phuket, explore the food that’s in the hotel, but also the food that you find in Phuket Town! Explore that as a separate destination.”

“Centara Grand Beach Resort Phuket can obviously arrange a chauffeured trip – and with a private tour guide should the guests so wish.”

Commenting on the future, after already quite many years on Phuket, Michael says: “It’s very unusual that we get to stay this long in a property or a destination in the hospitality industry. But I foresee to continue with Centara as long as the chain continues developing. There are always opportunities coming up and it’s a good product that we have in our resorts, with the Thai hospitality and character as a strong feature.”

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About Joakim Persson

Freelance business and lifestyle photojournalist

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