Parks bravery, and despair

Parks bravery, and despair

There is both good news and bad news from the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation.

The good news first _ which is despite all the talk about corrupt and inefficient officials, there are still some rare-breed officials whom we still can trust and feel proud of.

Among the handful of these officials is Damrong Pidech, chief of the department, who was recently hailed as a sort of a local hero who has the courage to stand up against the rich and powerful to protect the country's dwindling forests.

Mr Damrong recently led hundreds of park officials to demolish dozens of illegal resorts, including one estimated to be worth about 300 million baht, in Thap Larn national park in Prachin Buri province.

The raid won him high praise from environmental advocacy groups and the media, but, on the other hand, it has angered many illegal resort owners, one of whom lodged a complaint with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra resulting in a probe being ordered against Mr Damrong.

But the outgoing national parks chief remains unshaken and vows to carry on with his job. He has set his eyes on some resorts on Phuket island which he claims have encroached on park land.

Despite his determination to reclaim the land, it is doubtful he will succeed this time round because he has only two months left to serve in his job.

Mr Damrong has been leading hundreds of his staff drawn from national parks throughout the country to save the peat swamp forests in Nakhon Si Thammarat and Phatthalung provinces which have been burning for weeks.

The park chief said the fires were started intentionally to destroy the forests so encroachers could grow rubber and oil palm plantations on them.

Now the bad news. The National Parks Office, which is under the supervision of Mr Damrong, has recently decided to increase entrance fees for the country's most popular national parks by a whopping 150%, effective Oct 1.

Admission fees for Thai adults will increase from 40 baht to 100 baht while fees for Thai children will jump from 20 to 50 baht.

But foreign visitors will bear the brunt of the increase, with fees going up from 400 baht to 500 baht for adults and 200 baht to 300 baht for children.

The parks office claimed the fee hike is necessary to meet the cost of managing the parks, as funding from the government is insufficient.

However, the massive increases are unjustified and will affect the parks themselves, as the number of visitors, especially foreigners, is likely to fall.

Yutthachai Sunthornrattanavech, president of the Domestic Tourism Business Association, said the sharp increase in admission fees will have a psychological impact on visitors, especially Thai nationals.

He said the parks office should boost services at the parks, such as the number and cleanliness of toilets, and improve garbage collection and security for visitors, before increasing fees.

As the new rates have not yet come into force, the National Parks Office must take this opportunity to improve facilities and services first.

The fee rises themselves also should be reconsidered as they are too high.

More importantly, the two-tier rate for locals and foreigners should be abolished simply because it is discriminatory.

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