Incident thrusts Vietnamese island into international limelight

Phu Quoc island is Vietnam's next big tourism hope. Its spanking new international airport opened two years ago, and it roads are being transformed from dirt to tar.

Earlier this month, the government even granted a 30-day visa exemption for foreign visitors to this island.

However, the missing Malaysia Airlines (MAS) Flight MH370 has thrust the island into international limelight quicker than imagined, as the Vietnamese authorities coordinate their search efforts from here.

Every day, helicopters scouring the seas for the missing jetliner take off and land from Phu Quoc International Airport's newly upgraded runway, while its air traffic control centre serves as a makeshift news centre for hordes of Vietnamese, Chinese and Malaysian reporters.

The last known position of the missing MAS plane was off the waters of Ca Mau province on the southern tip of Vietnam.

Hanoi is taking the search seriously, temporarily setting aside maritime disputes to allow Chinese search vessels into its seas and committing at least eight ships and seven aircraft to the search.

Despite several fruitless days searching for the passenger plane, Vietnamese Air Force Deputy Commander Do Minh Tuan would not say when his country would call it quits.

"We will keep trying," he told reporters in Phu Quoc.

The sunny island is also home to a naval unit, which is joining in the search.

With the international effort repeatedly drawing a blank, reporters holed up in Phu Quoc's air traffic control centre have taken to interviewing one another. Others make their way to the gleaming US$771 million (S$978 million) airport, where cafes and a souvenir shop offer some respite and distraction.

The mountainous island is just 600 sq km, roughly the size of Singapore and home to just 102,000 people. Under the French colonial regime as well as the South Vietnamese government, the island was used to imprison political dissidents.

The Vietnamese authorities hope to turn the fish sauce- producing region into the next Phuket. Plans are under way for a whole slate of roads and bridges, as well as an undersea cable to link Phu Quoc to the national grid to support tourism.

According to the Tuoi Tre online news portal, the island welcomed about 600,000 visitors in 2012. Large parts of the island are currently under construction, and swathes of land have also been cleared for new homes and hotels.

However, Phu Quoc is also home to a wide variety of wildlife and relatively unspoilt beaches, something which environmentalists fear will be lost once tourists crowd the island. As international attention on the search for the plane - as well as Phu Quoc - grows, the day may come earlier than later.

But locals like Mr Tran Van Tnah are not complaining. The former naval officer, who now drives taxis for a living, estimates that he is earning 30 per cent more since the search for the missing plane began over the weekend.

"More high-ranking officials have come here, and also foreign reporters," he said.

"I think the economy of Phu Quoc is going to benefit from this."

tanhy@sph.com.sg