The Fouling of Phuket


Outer Bamnks diving on the Great Escape Southern California Live-Aboard Dive Boat

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Posted by on April 21, 2005 at 06:04:40:

Growing tourism is killing one of Thailandīs greatest tourist attractions.

Beneath the windex-blue Andaman Sea, coral reefs are going to ruin. Just as Thailand prepares for an upsurge of new visitors, with the government aiming to double its present tourist revenues, marine biologists warn that careless development has already wrecked two thirds of the reefs surrounding the southern resort island of Phuket. No wonder authorities are getting that sinking feeling.

Seen from a highrise hotel room or the terrace of a luxury villa, the vistas of wooded limestone islets that featured in a classic James Bond speedboat sequence and The Beach are just as breathtaking as ever. Phuket's waters are warm, the fish are exotic and the tropical sunsets romantic. There still are plenty of isolated coves which look pristine. But under the surface, one of the world's top ten yachting and diving destinations is self-mutilating. Less than a third of Phuket's 5.4 square miles of underwater coral garden is intact.

Sludge and debris washed into the sea from construction work across the island is the main cause of the reefs' demise, according to Nipon Pongsuwanthe, a coral specialist from the Phuket Marine Biological Center. Commercial fishing and daytripping divers have also harmed the delicate coral formations. And researchers at the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources said this part of the Andaman Sea is awash with 10,000 tons of garbage. According to their latest survey, floating refuse has increased by 10 per cent since last year.

"Tourism has increased and tour groups irresponsibly dump litter,' said the Environment Minister, Suwit Khunkitti. In cooperation with the Scuba Diving Association of Thailand, his ministry recently dispatched 100 underwater garbage collectors who voluntarily retrieved 660 pounds of rubbish around the tropical island of Koh Racha Yai, near Phuket. Most of the harmful flotsam and jetsam was left behind by fishing trawlers. But plastic bags and bottles, styrofoam cups, soggy cigarettes, used condoms and dirty diapers were evident as well.

The majority of damaged coral around Phuket was found in the most popular diving sites for tourists, such as the Hae Noi Islands, Koh Ngum, Koh Tapao Yai, Koh Tapao Noi and Koh Rang Yai. Novice snorklers who stand on the coral while they clear their masks were blamed for some of the destruction. But even a flipper stroke too near the fragile living organism can harm corals, environmentalists caution. More upmarket or remote islands, including Koh Phi Phi, Koh Surin and Koh Similan (a protected archipelago) suffered significantly less coral damage.

Three bouts of global warming, which raised temperatures enough to kill and bleach coral during the 1990s, also contributed to the ecological crisis on the reefs.

Thai environmentalists are equally dismayed by a 150-mile petroleum pipeline in the works. The proposed Strategic Energy Landbridge is planned to link Middle Eastern oil producers to consumers in East Asia, eliminating a long tanker journey around the Malay Peninsula.

None of Phuket's 50 scuba diving shops welcome the prospect of the pipeline's offshore platform, scheduled to be built south of Khao Lak, because of the increased risk of pollution. Three local tourism authorities have written protest letters to Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

"Thais support tourism, but don't care about environmental conservation," said Pinjai Vanapruk, an eco-activist.

Aggressive promotion of the so-called Andaman Triangle, which includes Phuket plus mainland resorts in Krabi and Phang Nga, is part of a government scheme to boost high-end tourism and double the industry's takings by 2008. The travel industry presently accounts for 6 per cent of Thailand's economy.

Promoters recently launched a feasibility study for developing Phuket as a duty-free port city, similar to Malaysia's Langkawi. Phuket has become home to a lively expatriate community, serviced by several international schools and regular airlinks. Now the island's airport is destined to become a hub for Southeast Asia's new no-frills airlines as well. Neighboring Singapore, which supplies half a million of Phuket's 4.2 million tourists every year, is considering building a new terminal just for the profusion of cut-rate airlines in the region. As a result of start-up competition, promotional airfares from Singapore to Phuket have dropped to unprecedented lows.

Bargain round-trip tickets can cost under Singapore $1, equivalent to U.S. 59 cents, and the flights are packed. These budget air tickets can be purchased on the Internet or picked up at local supermarkets and convenience stores. Such prices are undercutting even bus and ferry fares, and attracting a whole new class of first-time flyers from farflung Thai provinces and neighboring countries.

Local environmentalists are keen to educate visitors about taking care of the sea. Releasing giant clams bred in captivity to help filter the waters is one of their pet projects. "I think we've taken enough from the sea and it's high time that we started giving something back in return," said Jatuporn Suralertrungsun, a scuba diver.



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