Tourism can be made sustainable

On the surface, the Andaman sea off Phi Phi Island is calm and clear, its emerald green colour is ever attractive. Yet, the underwater situation with an extensive area of bleached coral reef make this popular world-class dive site a red-alert tourism spot.

One word springs to mind: "Graveyard" under the sea.

The sight of bleaching branches of coral reef gave me a horrific feeling similar to that when I witness the aftermath of forest fires that leave dead, charred trees.

It was May last year when I visited Phi Phi Island, one of the world's most famous tourist destinations, to cover a project to save the coral reef, a collaboration between the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP), private sector, Tambon Ao Nang Local Administration and academics from Chulalongkorn University's Department of Marine Science, Faculty of Science.

Anchalee Kongrut writes about the environment in the Life section, Bangkok Post.

In a nutshell, the marine scientists embarked on an experiment to rescue bleached coral to make it more resilient to rising sea water temperature. Local administration was prepared to get tough with hotels and restaurants that operate without wastewater treatment systems, and ensure restaurants will not serve endangered fish such as shark meat. Local tour operators were to record and regulate the amount of boats.

Dubbed the "Phi Phi Model," the scheme proved to be positive.

After the DNP started documenting and improving the entrance fee collection system last year, more revenue, up more than 300 times, was found from the previous figures. The number of tourist boats, from the old record of 90, turned out to be more than 1,500.

The department reportedly will close Maya Beach -- one of the world's famous beaches -- every year during the off-season from July to September, to allow the ecological system time to recover.

Natural resources in the island were degraded, partly from tourism and rising sea water temperatures caused by global warming.

During the high season, about 10,000 tourists in a single day visit this destination, and 5,000 during off-season. Fortunately, the authority and local administration agencies know the golden goose will not live forever.

The case of the Phi Phi Model is one of few examples which show Thailand is going in the right direction in fostering harmony between promoting tourism and taking good care of natural resources, ecology and the local economy.

The DNP during past few years has closed Koh Ta Chai -- a stunning dive site in the Andaman Sea -- permanently, as the site was heavily damaged. This positive trend can also be seen at the Ministry of Tourism and Sports.

Minister Korbkan Wattanavrangkul made the right decision to ban low-cost tours known as "Tour Zoon Rien" (zero dollar tours), after numerous reports of a monopoly arising, and violations of regulations.

As tour operators lambasted the decision, we saw an initial drop of tourists from China, but the figures have improved gradually. It sent a good message for sustainable development.

The next challenge of the tourism industry is to introduce a measure that stipulates so-called "carrying capacity". Such measures will regulate and put a quota on the amount of tourists entering a destination.

In line with this, Sarayuth Tanthien, chief of the Noppharat Thara Beach-Phi Phi Islands National Park, told the media the department is about to introduce measures to control the number of visitors.

If it succeeds, it will not just be a dream. The DNP can start using resource management in Khao Yai National Park, or natural sites such as Doi Chiang Dao in Chiang Mai, to control the amount of visitors.

"The key is to have good communication between the authority and local operators and enough rational and scientific research studies to explain why certain parks need to be closed. I believe if authorities already have a good communication with local operators and inform them in advance, local operators can operate," said conservationist Petch Manopawitr, deputy head of Southeast Asia Group of International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an international organisation working in the field of nature conservation and sustainable use of natural resources.

After all, sustainable tourism is a matter of good management and planning. Making tourism sustainable is achievable. Those who oppose this idea hold a belief that the golden goose lays golden eggs eternally. That is an illusion.

About the author

Writer: Anchalee Kongrut
Position: Editorial pages editor