Missing Malaysia Airlines plane: Phu Quoc island in spotlight amid search operations
PHU Quoc island is Vietnam's next big tourism hope. Its spanking new international airport opened two years ago and its 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 as well as 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. Deputy prime minister Hoang Trung Hai also made a trip to Phu Quoc on Monday.
Despite several fruitless days searching for the passenger plane, Vietnamese Air Force Deputy Commander Do Minh Tuan Vietnam 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 blanks, reporters holed up in Phu Quoc's air traffic control centre have taken to interviewing each other. Others make their way to the gleaming US$771 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.
Vietnamese authorities hope to turn the fish sauce-producing region into the next Phuket, and plans are underway 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 Toui 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 been cleared for new homes and hotels.
But Phu Quoc is also home to a big 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 - as well as Phu Quoc - grows, the day may come earlier than later.
But locals like Tran Van Tnah are not complaining. The former naval officer, who now drives taxis for a living, estimates 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."