Sustainable tourism planned for Phi Phi

Conservation, not money, should come first to protect the island's beautiful marine environment

The Phi Phi Model, a conservation and tourism management plan, has been introduced to create sustainable tourism on Phi Phi islands, one of Thailand's most visited tourist sites. Photo shows an alliance of supporters who visited the site last month. Singha Estate, partner, donated boats and buoys for national park staffs to control boats and protect coral sites. (Photos courtesy of Singha Estate Pcl unless noted)

July and August are supposed to be quiet months in the Andaman tourism calendar because of the monsoon. Yet recently at Maya Beach -- a renowned little sandy cove in Koh Phi Phi Lay -- the scene was lively with a swarm of visitors. European holidaymakers wandered around trying to find a vacant spot for sunbathing. Chinese tourists walked in groups, following flag-waving tour guides. Muslim women in black niqab waded into crystal-clear water along the shore.

"What you see is already a less congested day according to Maya Beach's standards," said Wuttichai Prathoomthong, head of the national park unit that oversees Koh Phi Phi Island, which is in Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Koh Phi Phi Marine National Park.

Coral reefs in the Andaman Sea are facing a bleaching problem caused by climate-change-induced rising sea temperature. The degradation of coral sites affect not only ecology but tourism as million of tourists each year visited Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Koh Phi Phi Marine National Park to experience pristine beaches and coral reefs.  (Photos courtesy of Singha Estate)

"If you're here during the high season, you won't see the sand and the beach at all. All you see is the heads of visitors. Boats have to wait for an hour for a queue to ferry visitors back and forth," Wuttichai adds, as he looks at the legion of tourists on the 250-metre-long Maya beach.

Low or high season, Phi Phi Islands are invariably super-crowded. But now,

On any given month, Wuttichai and other 19 staff park members have an unimaginable workload seven days a week, because the machine of tourism never stops. During the high season and long weekends, the amount of visitors can swell over 10,000 in a single day. In the low season where other marine national parks are empty, around 5,000 visitors arrive at Phi Phi. Maya Beach in particular has become supremely popular since 1999 when it was featured in the film The Beach.

Such popularity means this national park is the highest income generator for the state. On the day before our visit last month alone, the park collected 1.6 million baht from the 400-baht-per-head entry fee -- in the past 12 months around 1.6 million visitors arrived at Phi Phi. According to data from the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plan Protection (DNP), income from Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Koh Phi Phi Marine National Park from Oct 1, 2015, to May 31 this year was already 368.91 million baht. Compare that with the total income from entry fees from all 147 national parks in the country: 800 million baht in 2015. Other popular national parks such as Khao Yai or Erawan National Park bring in around 70 million baht annually.

Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Koh Phi Phi Marine National Park in Krabi is becoming the largest revenue generator among all 147 national parks across the country. (Photo by Anchalee Kongrut)

Despite the huge revenue, the Phi Phi Model has been initiated to curb the number of tourists: the DNP is mulling a plan to close Koh Phi Phi Lay during the low season from June to September annually, to allow the environment and ecology to recover. The off-season closure, if implemented, means the loss of at least 40 million baht a month in revenue that the DNP usually collects from visitors in June or July.

However, the policy is backed by local communities, conservationists, local businesses and park authorities.

The fate of Thailand's most beautiful marine environment came into a negative light last year from the entry fee collection scandal and a series of embarrassing news on environmental degradation. Coral reefs in the national park suffered from bleaching as seawater's temperature rose to 34°C, forcing the DNP to close a few beaches permanently. This May, a number of tourists from Scandinavian countries -- known for their high spending -- cancelled trips because of pungent waste water from hotels and restaurants in the Ao Nang beach areas in Phi Phi Don.

The Phi Phi model has been proposed by marine biologist Asst Prof Thon Thamrongnawasawat, deputy dean of Fisheries Department at Kasetsart University. Last year Thon posted on his Facebook page eyesore images of environmental damage at Koh Phi Phi. The post stirred a massive public outcry. Thon, adviser to the Ministry of Natural Resource Environment on marine resource management, has since used social media to drum up support on reforming resource and tourism management in Thai seas by using Phi Phi Islands as a launching pad.

"We are trying to turn the hopeless island into a hopeful place," says Thon. "Phi Phi island is an extreme case of how unsustainable tourism has destroyed nature. We chose this place because if the Phi Phi Model works, it means we can apply it to other marine national parks across the country."

A few partners of the Phi Phi Model. From left are Dirk De Cyper, senior management at Singha Estate, Asst Prof Thon Thamrongnawasawat and Naris Cheyklin, CEO of Singha Estate.

At the surface, the Phi Phi Model appears like a simple quota measure to limit the number of visitors. But in fact it is much more than that. The core idea is about creating a regulation and management system that can help commercial tourism and natural conservation go together in a more sustainable way.

As part of the plan, there have been a number of activities in the national park area and the tourist-choked Koh Phi Phi Don. Since last year, the DNP has enforced a new rule that all tourist boats must register, and imposed tight monitoring in the entry fee collection; this is because the park was beset by rumours of corruption. Previously, only 90 tourist boats were registered and the collected fees were less than 70 million baht per year. After the model was introduced last year, more than 1,500 boats came to register and fee collection has risen substantially -- at least 500%, according to park officials.

The programme also includes a strict ban of shark meat and parrot fish meat on the islands to prevent irresponsible and overfishing. The local administration also acts tough with hotels and restaurants, forcing them to do better in controlling waste water. Violators will risk losing business licences.

Perhaps the key element in the Phi Phi Model is community participation. The model has gained support from the Tambon Ao Nang Local Administration, as well as nearly all restaurants and hotels. Hotels such as Phi Phi Island Village Beach Resort, run by Singha Estate, a partner in the Phi Phi Model, has donated buoys and boats to help operation of the park.

"It is about time that we get serious about managing tourism because uncontrolled business has damaged our valuable marine natural resources," said Prasert Wongsena, deputy chief of the Tambon Ao Nang Local Administration. "Without white sand, clear water and coral reefs, Phi Phi has nothing to sell to tourists."

The only solution, said Prasert, is sustainable tourism that gives benefit to local communities. "Currently, heavy tourism may bring in visitors and money but the real benefits go to tour companies from Phuket and Phangnga provinces that provide one-day boat trips to Phi Phi -- not the locals. These outside operators do not care about the environment. They leave garbage that pollute our sea and they just randomly throw anchors into coral sites."

The DNP is trying to find the most practical actions to help tourism operators cope with change. The seasonable closure that is likely to start next June will mark an important step.

The DNP and local network will monitor the plan for two to three years. During that time, they will see the possibility of extending the model to nearby marine national parks. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment has a grand plan for Phi Phi island and other national parks in this sea: Over a decade ago, they have commissioned a study and prepared to propose all marine national parks in the Andaman to become a Unesco World Heritage Site.

To achieve that, a sustainable management plan such as the Phi Phi Model is a major factor for Unesco to consider, according to Thon.

"The Phi Phi Model is also about raising questions about what kind of tourists we need in national parks. Do we need mass quantity, or do we want small numbers with quality? In some cities, it is reasonable to bring in more tourists. But this model reminds us that in marine national parks, it is conservation, not money, that comes first."

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