Discovering 5-star values in Phuket

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

I’m back in Bangkok on day 88 of my world tour after a glorious six-night sojourn in Phuket, where tourism is at last bouncing back after a horrific two and a half years. It was the darkest of periods, one that saw the almost total shutdown of international tourism that serves as the island’s economic and employment lifeblood.

There I had the pleasure – actually I would call it the honour – of meeting Shaun Stenning, a most remarkable man. Shaun, an Australian from Victoria, runs 5 Star Marine, a business specialising in private speedboat boat hire and tours of the waters, islands and other natural wonders surrounding Phuket, itself a jewel off the west coast of mainland Thailand in the Andaman Sea.

With Shaun Stenning (centre) and our intrepid guide Alex

I was introduced to Shaun by Craig Mackie, formerly of Diageo and William Grant & Sons, who also did an amazing leadership job on our Moodie Insights business a few years back. Shaun looks after Craig’s boat, Spiced Dory, and provides captain and crew as needed.

At the height of the COVID-crisis on the island a large majority of the local population found themselves in dire circumstances due to the collapse of the tourist trade – the overwhelmingly dominant source of revenue and jobs for Phuket and the surrounding islands. Many were struggling to feed their families and for some the situation was desperate.

Click on the image to discover 5 Star Marine

Shaun, who had built a thriving business over recent years, felt he had to give back to the islands and the communities that had supported his livelihood. He established and led a sustained ‘Life Bag’ programme that ran throughout most of the COVID-ravaged months of the past two and a half years. The programme funded, collected and hand-packed life bags filled with food and other essentials which were then distributed to communities on Phuket and surrounding islands.

Remarkably, over 1 million life bags were despatched to needy families, each containing four to five days’ worth of food and other items. By mid-June last year, Shaun had already invested US$1.5 million of his own money. The number would reach much higher.

Shaun knew once he had made his very first delivery that it could not be any kind of temporary effort. In the video below, he observes, “How can I next week go back to the same village, look  the person in the eye and say, ‘You know what, I’ve got my nice villa or I’ve got my successful company and you don’t have food but I’m not going to help you today’?

“We get a lot of people who want to help and they help one time and then they stop. That’s because they’re not there on the frontline giving. I think if I was giving the money to a charity I would have stopped after the first year. But because I was there seeing it and I could see where the money was going and I could see the immediate effect it was having, I thought, well imagine that feeling every day.”

[Click on this video that relates Shaun Stenning’s inspiring story]

Shaun retained his staff throughout the pandemic and is now reaping the benefits as tourism edges encouragingly back towards some form of normality. In fact, he invested heavily in the business, buying more boats in the firm belief that things would get better. It was a brave decision, one that as he told me could have backfired if the pandemic-related travel constraints had lasted much longer. Instead, Thailand’s recent opening up is making that investment look very far-sighted indeed. Sometimes nice guys do win.

“It’s really remarkable what their team achieved to help the local communities in what was a horrific period for the local tourism industry,” Craig told me.

Three of Shaun’s fantastic crew took me and my wife Yulim out on Spiced Dory at the weekend (Craig and his family was in Bangkok) around the breath-taking waters and sights of Phang Nga Bay, also known as Ao Phang Nga National Park. Photos, glorious that they are, cannot do justice to the sheer wonder of a place that while hugely popular with tourists, remains almost wholly unspoiled by it.

Phang Nga Bay is studded with limestone cliffs and rock formations that pierce the waters with sheer primeval magnificence; vast marine carpets of mangrove forest; and a breath-taking array of small islands, most of them uninhabited and almost all totally unspoiled.

During a long and wonderful day on the water, our tour guide Alex told me about the profound impact of COVID on the island’s economy. For him and his family and for almost everyone they know, the return of tourism is a godsend. They want work not relief.

Like so many Thai people, the smile never seems to leave Alex’s face but the shaking of his head as he related the story revealed the depth and pain of such memories.

So as we left the boat to paddle joyfully through the narrowest and lowest of caves (claustrophobics look away now) into an enclosed lagoon that felt as if we had entered the Garden of Eden, we shared Alex’s pleasure at seeing lots of other travellers doing the same.

Tourists, so often lost in their own pleasure zones, tend to be unaware of what their presence can mean to regional economies. In contrast, local people are profoundly aware of it. Shaun’s business and his Life Bag programme in particular offer a life-affirming example of a tourism company understanding that its success depends on both groups and that with that success comes social responsibility.

Next time you’re in Phuket, don’t pass up the chances to discover these majestic sights. And if you want the best professional service underpinned by admirable and unswerving principles of social responsibility, get 5 Star Marine to take you there. 5 Star by name, 5 Star by values.

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