After their first edition in 2004, the German TV show crew from “Wir retten ihren Urlaub” (“We Save Your Holiday”), lead by Ralf Benko, has been enjoying season upon season of successfully travelling around the world to destinations about which German nationals had complained due to becoming sick or getting into trouble. The documentary making team normally gets “contacted either through the hotline or via the e-mail address” and organises a trip to a particular chosen destination “after doing some preliminary research to understand the state of events”, according to Mr. Benko.
“We aim mainly to help tourists, whether on a very small or a very large scale”, he added, recalling how the team managed to get a tour operator to compensate its clients after they had fallen victims to a particularly high number of thefts at a certain hotel in Greece. A much larger case Mr. Benko remembers as a definite source of pride was a Turkish resort visited several times after about one hundred of its guests had fallen ill upon swimming in the seawater close to the establishment. The team investigated and took a number of water samples before airing the show on German TV to report their findings.
“Tourist numbers plummeted soon after the broadcast of that edition, leading the authorities to realise they needed to take action”, explained Mr. Benko. Upon returning a year later, the team form “Wir retten ihren Urlaub” was greeted by the Governor with new water samples demonstrating that the problem had been solved and the sea was much cleaner. “This is the investigative part of our show. We monitor and investigate the issue further to see whether it is tackled responsibly and whether people actually try to resolve it”, the show’s host added.
A few months ago, in March, Ralf Benko and his crew came to Phuket after receiving a number of complaints and messages from both tourist and locals stating that some of the water from the river and canals flowing into Kata, Karon and parts of Patong beach was brown, foamy and smelly. Unsurprisingly, the team found clear signs of water pollution upon their arrival and water samples taken at the site confirmed their suspicions, based on previous experience, that something was wrong.
“We gathered water samples from four areas on Kata, Karon and Patong beaches, most of which contained high levels of bacteria and pollution, with particularly high levels in the samples from the stretch of Karon beach near the waste water treatment plant. After supervising the tank and waste water treatment system continuously for 24 hours, throughout the day and night, we were very shocked to see how, during the day, with families of tourists and their children playing in the area, the hatch and concentrated water came rushing out from the plant and discharged into the sea”, said Mr. Benko. The issue had been identified and the case had been sealed, as the “Wir retten ihren Urlaub” team packed their bags and left Phuket, but the story did not end there, fortunately.
“Our job is not merely to point to the guilty and pass judgement, but rather to identify an issue and raise its awareness hoping for a solution to be developed. It is not easy to find one, but rather very difficult sometimes, but it needs to happen”, believes the team, who edited a small video of its findings complete with explanations and suggestions and sent it to the Tourism Authority of Thailand, which in turn passed it on to the Governor of Kata-Karon and other relevant officials. Additionally, the crew asked to return to Phuket in three months time to check on the progress made towards solving the problem.
A few days prior to the return of the German TV documentary crew, the treatment plant from which the polluted water flows had been given a new coat of paint. Then, on June 6th, Mr. Benko and the rest of his crew had a meeting with the Mayor of Kata-Karon and the president of the Kata-Karon Hotel Association, during which the first point raised was that even though the water samples failed international standards in terms of pollution levels, they did, in fact, comply with the local ones. Nevertheless, the authorities did admit that the waste water treatment outlet in discussion did occasionally pump untreated water into the sea, albeit it was a rare event. The Mayor of Karon, Thawee Thongcham, even brought forward three potential reasons for such occurences.
The first was that blackouts and times when electricity gets cut out cause the pump to stop working, an issue recently solved by the installation of an emergency cable connecting to the Municipality’s emergency generators. The second identified cause was heavy rainfall, for which the tubes and pumps are not big enough, which will be solved by the municipality’s plan to construct a deviation system for rain water by October, so that the rain will be channelled away from the tanks. Finally, the insufficient facilities on the site make the plant incapable of treating all of the water, with a maximum capacity of 6,000 cubic meters a day currently. However, the requirement is for about 10,000 cubic metres per day. This latter issue cannot be solved before 2013, though, as the municipality requires funds in order to be able to improve the existing facilities.
After the meeting ended, Mr. Benko and the Mayor placed a symbolic sign on the site at the Karon outlet to warn people of the potential spillages and overflows.
During his return visit, Mr. Benko also stated that he was optimistic regarding the issue, but not because he believed in an immediate resolution. Rather, he stated: “I am optimistic that the problem, as well as the responsibility for it, were accepted by the local authorities. This represents a first step, but the need to make the water clean remains, as the current one is nowhere near that.” He then showed a water sample collected from nearby the Karon treatment facility, explaining that, although it still contained worrying levels of bacteria, it was cleaner compared to the samples collected three months earlier.
Nevertheless, although not fully satisfied, Mr. Benko is currently placated: “I will only be happy when I see a resolution of the issue similar to the one in Turkey, but it would be wrong of me to say right now that you are bad unless you have 100 percent clean water. Phuket needs more time to deal with the problem.” This was one of the primary reasons why the Phuket edition of “Wir retten ihren Urlaub” has had its broadcast date delayed until mid-July.
“When major issues arise, we first wait for a reaction from the relevant authorities to see whether anything will actually happen towards bringing an actual improvement to the situation. It also depends on whether the situation is dangerous for anyone, in which case it is broadcast immediately.”
After the German TV show crew’s initial visit had been published in Phuket’s media, there were fears that the negative publicity resulted would have a strong impact on the island’s tourism industry. Nevertheless, Mr. Benko admitted that, despite being offered countless bribes and being threatened on some occasions, he has always refused corruption and has never considered not running a particular story at an individual’s request, nor has he ever felt in any real danger.
“I have been working on this project for many years and, despite never feeling in danger, I now know how far I can push some issues. Nobody dares to ask me not to air a particular story. Our aim is to help the tourists and arguing that we may negatively impact the tourism industry is invalid because the problems themselves are already doing that.”
Regarding a possible return to Phuket, Mr. Benko said that “tourists should keep me informed whether they see or smell anything unpleasant in the future”, with everything depending on what happens in the future.