Phuket and Ko Samui open to a more sustainable future in tourism

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With Phuket and Ko Samui now open to fully vaccinated international visitors, local tourism operators are hoping to welcome guests back to a rejuvenated and more sustainable Thailand.

While the world stood still, across Thailand, operators have been working to improve infrastructure, care for the local environment and learn how to operate more sustainably. Operators in Phuket and Ko Samui have paid particular attention to their precious coastal and marine environment.

Some improvements have been intentional, most notably the closure of tourist hot spots, Maya Bay, Ko Tachai and Ko Yoong areas within the marine parks. Some changes have taken place naturally due to the absence of mass tourism, such as endangered leatherback turtles returning to Phuket’s sandy shores to lay their eggs.

Sharks return to Maya Bay

Danny Boyle’s film ‘The Beach’ made Maya Bay as famous as it is. The depiction of a hedonistic secret paradise in Thailand’s hidden crystal-clear bay encouraged a huge surge in tourism to the area. Despite the fact that ‘The Beach’ was supposed to be located in the Gulf of Thailand, closer to Samui, Ko Phang Ngan and Ko Tao, Maya Bay was the location chosen for the film, for its magnificent limestone cliffs and enticing turquoise waters. This fame came at a price, influencing thousands of tourists to visit the small bay.

With hundreds of speedboats and hordes of people littering the bay each day, a visit to the iconic Thai attraction was no longer a thing of beauty, it was downright unpleasant. The authorities closed Maya Bay completely back in 2018, to help regenerate and preserve the bay, and the results have been outstanding.

The closure of Maya Bay is a testament to Thailand’s efforts to address the negative impacts of tourism on marine life. According to Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Maya Bay is now home to well over 100 black-tip reef sharks, the highest shark population in Thai waters.

Leatherback turtles nest in Phuket

With the closure of beaches during Phuket’s first lockdown and the drastic reduction in tourist numbers and light pollution, rare Leatherback turtles have returned to the beaches to lay their eggs. Leatherbacks are the world’s largest species of sea turtles and are listed as endangered in Thailand. Dr Kongkiat Kittiwatanawong, the director of the Phuket Marine Biological Center, said this is the greatest number of leatherback sea turtle nests that Thailand’s beaches have seen in 20 years.

Boat Operators cleanup Ko Tao

Over in the gulf of Thailand, the small island if Ko Tao has been particularly affected by border closures, with some 90 per cent of the island’s boat operators now out of work.

The UNDP Biodiversity Finance (BIOFIN) initiative has launched a new crowdfunding campaign that will place 200 of the island’s laid-off boat operators into an alternate stream of work: cleaning up the island.

Ko Tao has struggled to manage the estimated 30 tons of waste a day left by tourists in recent years, and this year’s lull has provided its marine ecosystems with much-needed respite.

“Without tourists, the coral reef ecosystem is recovering quite well,” says Niran Nirannoot, project manager for BIOFIN in Thailand. “But there are some areas where we need to provide support for conservation. The local government is aware that if they do not preserve the ecosystem, they may not be able to attract tourists to come back.”

Starting in December, the 200 boat operators are being paid a monthly sum of THB 3,000 (USD 100) – raised entirely through the crowdfunding campaign – to clear waste and marine debris from the island’s beaches and waters. They will also be provided with training in financial literacy, courtesy of Krung Thai Bank (KTB), one of the project’s main sponsors.

So far, the campaign has raised THB 1.81 million (USD 60,000), with KTB chipping in THB 583,000 (USD 19,000). Donations from within Thailand make up over 90 percent of contributions.

Sustainable Diving: Andaman Sea

Phuket-based Holger Schwab, Managing Director of Sea Bees Diving, says, “Pandemics may be awful, but they are teaching us valuable lessons. Most of those lessons relate to humans’ treatment of the Earth. It’s possible that these lessons will spark a long-term change in conservation. Perhaps this means a different type of tourism model in the future, slower and more considerate of the ecosystem we are working within”.

Scuba diving in the Andaman Sea can often offer some of the best experiences in the world, thanks to its dazzling and colourful marine life, with world-class dive sites including Richelieu Rock, Ko Ha, Hin Deang and Hin Muang.

During the first stages of reopening the region to tourism, Phuket can now offer much richer underwater experiences to visitors, with the most sought-after diving spots now much quieter and a joy to dive.

“We are seeing an increase in certain species, there’s more anemonefish and barracuda in the Andaman Sea than ever before.

“A more sustainable approach to enjoying our underwater world has been needed for a long time, and we hope that the effects of the pandemic prove to be positive in this regard for the marine parks in the Andaman region”.

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