Avoiding tourism's stresses and strains
Foreign visitors have started returning to tourist destinations since the start of the year after the government lifted some Covid-19 measures. The influx of tourists has been observed from Phuket to Chiang Mai, some of which report visitor overcrowding.
This encouraging trend nevertheless raises a challenge for tourism management in the post-pandemic era. As tourism is expected to be the main driver of the economic recovery, Thailand needs a clear strategy for sustainable tourism, so it can avoid the damage done by overtourism in the pre-pandemic period.
One destination that has already experienced damage caused by overcapacity and selfie-crazy tourists is a small uninhabited islet off the coast of eastern Trat province, which has become famous among social media users.
This islet, nicknamed "Koh Khai Hua Roh" which means the comical island, is a few metres wide and has just one lone tree -- making it look like an imaginary island in a popular Thai comic, Khai Hua Roh.
Its unique characteristic has attracted tourists who want to take pictures of themselves and the tree on social media.
In the past few months, after the relaxation of Covid-19 measures, big groups of Thai tourists have begun to visit the islet. Some groups have come with more than 10 members even though the islet can take just five tourists at a time.
News reports say the visitors climbed the tree, Xylocarpus rumphii or taban tree in the local language, which is a rare plant species in Thailand. Its branches have been broken, and its roots trampled and damaged. As a result, the condition of the tree is worsening.
This led Koh Mak Tambon Administrative Organisation, the local government entity overseeing the islet, to start thinking about measures including limiting the number of visitors to the islet and seasonal closing to allow the tree's recovery.
What happened on the islet is like the deja vu of pre-Covid tourism, in which some tourist destinations were temporarily closed due to overcapacity and a deteriorated environment.
In May, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) said that around 20,000 international visitors arrived in Thailand each day. It estimates the total number of foreign tourists may reach 7-10 million by the end of this year.
But that is still far less than a pre-pandemic year, with nearly 40 million overseas visitors in 2019 with tourism revenue accounting for around 20% of GDP.
One in four of these visitors came from China, which still has closed borders under the zero-Covid policy.
While tourism is recovering, some measures should be put in place to avoid damage similar to that which occurred on Trat's islet. The good news is there are examples of sustainable tourism movements that could be replicated in other destinations.
Moo Koh Phi Phi Archipelago in southern Krabi province, where the 2000 film The Beach starring Leonardo DiCaprio was shot, is a most outstanding case study that shows nature's ability to recover if tourism is well managed.
The effort to save the island's environment began in 2018 when academics, authorities, and local tour operators agreed to shut down Koh Phi Phi Le, well known for its Maya Bay, the paradise-like beach surrounded by limestone cliffs and crystal clear water.
Maya Bay, which includes a 250-metre-long beach, received more than 5,000 tourists a day before the shutdown. Without controls in place, tourist boats could park anywhere in front of the bay and damage coral reefs.
Tourists stepped on the reefs and dumped garbage all over. Some even threw food into the water to attract fish, so they could take selfies while feeding the animals. Worse, some tour guides encouraged them to do so.
But Maya Bay is not like that any more. Since its reopening in January, tourists can only access the beach from the back of the island to preserve coral reefs at the front. They are allowed to be on the beach for one hour, and no more than 300 on the beach at a time. They are also prohibited to swim in the water, but they can still dip their feet in the water. Guards are stationed on the beach to warn tourists who flout the rules.
Authorities and marine research organisations put effort into restoring the reefs in the absence of tourists. Last year, they said blacktip sharks had returned to the water around Maya Bay for the first time in decades.
The effort to restore Maya Bay is making good progress mainly because of the participation of stakeholders who share a sense of purpose. Local business operators understand they would lose income in the short term. But they will be able to sustain their business in the long run, if tourism and the environment are kept in good balance.
Tourists also gain. They can still take selfies, but with a better landscape and atmosphere.
This effort needs replication in other parts of Thailand in preparation for the influx of tourists. If it spreads out and develops to a national movement, Thai tourism will likely make a comeback, and be even stronger after the pandemic than it was before.
Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.
Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.