Some 90% of diving schools in Thailand are run by overseas operators, resulting in the country losing large amounts of revenue to foreigners at the expense of Thailand's natural resources, says Palang Yimpanich, the owner of Sport Time Dive Center.
Snorkellers follow the rope at Surin Island.
Thailand is one of the world's most popular diving destinations. The country's top-five diving sites are Similan's Marine National Park, Surin's Marine National Park (Richelieu Rock), Hin Daeng-Hin Muang, Koh Ha (Lanta Island) and Koh Phi Phi's Shark Point.
According to the Jan-Feb 2009 issue of Scuba Diving magazine, Thailand was voted the No.2 snorkelling site in the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the top 10 for scuba diving.
The law requires diving schools and centres to have Thai shareholders holding a 51% stake, but most of them are actually nominees, said Mr Palang. Most dive centres on islands belong to foreign operators who arrive as tourists. They run their business during the high season and leave when the low season comes, he added.
They have dominated the local diving business for over a decade because only a small number of Thais are qualified instructors.
Mr Palang said there are qualified Thai divemasters and instructors. Qualified professionals must pass examinations conducted in English by foreign diving institutions.
"There have been attempts to train people to become dive instructors in Phuket. But most of them are rich and high-profile Bangkokians, and when they graduate they do not remain in the diving business. Therefore, foreigners continue to dominate and cash in on opportunities here," he said.
A Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) study on diving-related tourism showed foreign divers stay in Thailand from 8-10 days, with most of them spending five days diving on average.
On other days they rest and do other activities, as 39% arrive with friends and 23% with families. Average spending on a diving trip is about 4,000 baht a day and a live-aboard trip is 20,000 baht.
The TAT said figures show 400,000 diving tourists spent about 40,000 baht per trip. The number of visitors remains high, but spending per trip has decreased due to high competition.
Mr Palang is also one of the founders of the Diving Association of Thailand. Other founders include naval officers and people in diving circles. The association is legally registered and has just elected a new president. It plans to address the foreign monopoly and needs the cooperation of all relevant parties.
The association's new management intends to protect national interests and address competition from Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia.
The TAT study found that Indonesia's distinctive points are muck diving and many rare marine species and diving sites. Malaysia has a world-class diving site at Sipadan, while the Philippines has the World Heritage site of Tubbataha Reef National Marine Park.
Regarding general products, Thailand and its competitors do not differ much. Thailand has a competitive edge with its stable water temperatures and large number of diving schools. Indonesia is a major competitor, as its diving tour charges are not much different from Thailand's and it boasts more coral reefs. So Thailand needs to find a unique position to deal with greater competition in the future.
Thailand's key attractions are its beautiful underwater geological features and coral reefs, good diving safety record and variegated marine species as well as the cleanliness of its offshore waters. Meanwhile, the weak points are a crowded diving sites, poor organisation and substandard dive boat services.
About the author
- Writer: Chadamas Chinmaneevong