Thailand addresses tourist hangover

One of Thailand’s Similan islands. Source: Wikimedia

The closure of Thailand’s Koh Tachai indefinitely from October due to fears that tourism is trashing the island’s ecology is raising questions about the sustainability of the kingdom’s tourist sector. But it is also indicative of the poisonous nature of public debate in Thailand that official announcements can no longer be taken at face value.

The tiny Andaman island has white beaches and world-class diving, however, Thailand’s military authorities claim its ecology is under increasing threat, the Bangkok Post has reported.

Although visitors can spot leopard sharks and manta rays in the clear waters, many have also complained on travel websites about overcrowding, especially at snorkelling sites.

Thon Thamrongnawasawat, the deputy dean of the faculty of fisheries at Kasetsart University, said while Tachai’s beaches should hold only 70 people, sometimes numbers exceeded 1,000.

He told the Post that the beaches were “already crowded with food stalls and tour boats. This caused the island to quickly deteriorate. If it’s not closed now, we’ll lose Koh Tachai permanently.”

Anyone who has visited Thailand’s islands will know how much pressure large-scale tourism places on their fragile ecosystems. Just to keep tourists refreshed, boats loaded with beer and plastic bottles of filtered water (often incorrectly referred to as “mineral” water) constantly sail to the idylls. Each island has a corresponding heap of discarded bottles waiting to make the journey in the opposite direction or to be lost at sea.

Seemingly minor factors like reusable glass water bottles and jugs of filtered water that are ever-present on the mainland are absent on the islands.

Thailand’s gagged and scared media is increasingly becoming a mouthpiece for the junta, raising doubts about the motives behind all its actions.

Tunya Netithammakul, director general of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plants Conservation, was quoted in the Post saying: “Thanks to its beauty, Koh Tachai has become a popular tourist site for both Thai and foreign tourists. This has resulted in overcrowding and the degradation of natural resources and the environment.

“We have to close it to allow the rehabilitation of the environment both on the island and in the sea without being disturbed by tourism activities before the damage is beyond repair.”

Koh Tachai is part of the Similan National Park and is one of the best places to dive in the kingdom’s waters.

However, the junta appears keen to gag every other form of debate ahead of the August 7 referendum on the constitution it has drafted to enshrine its political power for decades to come.

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As a consequence of the oppression, announcements like the one about Tachai raise questions about whether the generals are really planning a penal colony like the British Raj built in nearby Port Blair on India’s Andaman Islands or a containment camp for Rohingya Muslims fleeing apartheid-style subjugation in neighbouring Myanmar.

A quick look at a map potentially shows a more sustainable destination for divers and island hoppers. Myanmar’s far larger Myeik archipelago might well open up to mass tourism in the increasingly democratic union.

However, the untouched beauty spots in Myanmar’s illusive waters are jealously guarded by the nation’s powerful military and the oil and gas sector which might not make the ideal hosts for the debauched hedonism that often dominates Thai beach tourism.

Cynicism aside, Thailand’s rulers are not lying when they detail the damage being done to its islands.

“The waters around the park are teeming with marine life, including sharks, barracuda and turtles,” correspondent for Britain’s Telegraph newspaper Tom Vator said. “And it offers some of the best coral gardens in the country.”

Two of the deep-diving sites will remain open after October with the rest of the island off-limits. Diving companies that overload their boats also risk having their licences removed (if they lack political contacts or fail to pay an adequate bribe, of course).

The Tourism Council of Thailand (TCT) warned last month that the Andaman Islands were being destroyed by tourism and that the authorities were failing to act.

The TCT mentioned rubbish, human waste and damage to coral reefs by anchors as the principal threats but said government supervision could reduce the impact of tourism.

As a result, Phuket’s authorities have controversially cleared the popular Surin beach of food stalls, massage parlours and sun loungers.

Phuket alone welcomed more than 12 million visitors last year and observers claim it is more a process of gentrification than environmental considerations. Capacious Phuket is attached to the mainland by a causeway making it a more sustainable destination than other islands.

Although tourism is worth a reported to raise 2,345 billion baht (US$66 billion) to Thailand’s ailing economy, the country needs to think about the sustainable management of the visitor numbers.

With up to 33 million international tourists due to arrive this year and a growing domestic tourist industry, the pressure on beauty spots will continues to rise. Thai GDP growth rates remain some of the lowest in Asean, with the tourism sector accounting for nearly all of 2015’s 2.8-per-cent growth.

Tourism, making up 10 per cent of GDP, has been an isolated positive with arrivals in the first quarter rising an impressive 15.5 per cent.

While no one would doubt that Thailand’s beauty spots need to be protected, many will question whether the kingdom’s corrupt, greedy generals are the men for the job.