Governments of the world beware. Countries popular with cruising sailors reap good economic benefits, but cruising yachts are designed to move, and cruising sailors will vote with their lifted anchors when authorities, by design or accident, make it difficult or more expensive for visiting yachts. Many countries have experienced this, and Thailand is only the latest.
By a bureaucratic mistake which included boats in a new law actually meant for motor vehicles, 20% of the visiting yachts to Phuket left in the first two months after the law was passed on December 26. According to Nunthita Wirikup, Director of the Phuket Customs Department, 'This 20 per cent (of the foreign-registered boats) left in the eight weeks it took us to get the two-month rule rescinded on February 19.'
Before December 26 last year, foreign-registered yachts could be kept in Phuket for up to six months but on that date, according to the Phuket News, the Customs Department brought in a new rule that owners or skippers must 're-register' their boats every two months during the six months.
Now, that rule has been dropped. In fact, the regulations have been relaxed and more is to come, said Ms Sirikup in an interview with Phuket News, after she has consulted with other relevant government departments.
For now, she said, the rules state that a foreign-flagged yacht may be kept in Phuket waters for up to six months. A relaxation of the rules means this period may be extended by four months by applying to the Phuket Customs Office and a further two months by application to the Southern Region Customs Director, Prayuk Maneechot, who is based in Songkhla, overseeing all 17 custom offices in the South.
These extensions, she stressed, will be given only in cases of special need. She added, 'The total maximum duration is not more than one year, though we might be able to allow an extension beyond one year in cases of dire necessity.'
Mrs Nunthita told The Phuket News, 'The reason we changed to two months previously, was that the Customs Department [in Bangkok] made the mistake of issuing the new rules based on the need to curb smuggling of cars.
'When the two-month rule was issued, I did not know they were going to do this. I had to chase the problem all the way up to Rakop Srisuppaaod, the Director-General in Bangkok, to approve reverting to the old six-month yacht stay rules.
'Now we are using the same law but adjusting some of the basic rules to suit the needs of boat owners or captains, but we need time to correct some of the other rules so that they are the same countrywide.
'I would like to see the Phuket Customs Department become the centre for administration of the customs regulations applying to boats. This is under consideration [in Bangkok].'
Apart from the ability to get extensions of stay for a boat, Mrs Nunthita explained other changes that have now been brought in that should gladden the hearts of yachties.
'The old rule linking the length of stay for a boat with the owner or captain’s personal permit to stay in Thailand has been cancelled.' Previously a boat was not allowed to be kept in Thai waters after the owner of captain’s permit to stay expired. Both boat and owner had to leave together.
But, Mrs Nunthita stressed, 'The boat stay is temporary only. It is not permanent. If you want the boat to stay here permanently without any problem, you should register your boat under the Thai flag.'
Asked about the fees, she told The Phuket News, 'There is no charge to extend the stay of a boat. However, if the boat ‘overstays’, people should understand that the old fine of B500 ($15) a day has been increased to B1,000($30) per day, up to a maximum of B10,000 ($300).