Thai environmentalism won't wave the white flag

Thailand’s natural beauty has long lured millions of foreign vacationers, but after the tsunami, a row is brewing over how best to protect the environment while accommodating surging tourism.

Barely 100 days after giant waves pummelled the resort-cluttered Andaman coastline, leaving about 5 400 people dead, the kingdom remains torn between safeguarding Mother Nature and promoting a multibillion-dollar industry.

Niphon Phongsuwan, a senior biologist in Phuket at the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, said the tsunami’s sparing of most environmental gems along the coast should not blind tourism development to the need for greater protection.

“We have to accept today that we have developed in the wrong places ... in some places too close to the shoreline,” Niphon said in Phuket.

Hotels have sprung up “without care for the environment”, often polluting coastal waters with waste and causing sediment erosion, he added.

“If we keep doing that, the environment will only get worse.”

Niphon said a plan to rehabilitate the region includes better land-use control, coastal zone management and sustainable tourism development, but that forces in the tourism industry clash with conservationists.

And with tourism playing such a vital role, it’s difficult to propose sweeping new regulations without encountering a buzzsaw of political and business opposition.

Thailand is struggling to recover its battered tourist industry, which is south-east Asia’s largest with 10-million visitors last year. The multibillion-dollar industry is a huge cash spinner for Thailand, generating about 6% of gross domestic product.

Since the tsunami, the government has mulled a “buffer zone” along Thai coastlines barring any new construction within a certain distance, in some places up to 50m from the high-tide line, conservationists said.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Thai hotels, restaurants and shops are closer than that to the shoreline.

Wichit Na-Ranong, president of the Tourism Council of Thailand, said the tourism industry will fight tooth and nail against such a zone, arguing it will hamstring much-needed development along the coast.

“I will not allow this to happen, no matter how far back you set the limit,” Wichit told reporters in Phuket, where he owns a luxury resort.

In the aftermath of the tsunami, researchers and officials conducted rapid impact assessments of damage and concluded that the worst fears of an environmental catastrophe proved unfounded.

“We were expecting a lot more devastation everywhere,” said Lynsey Hill, a United Nations coordinator for reef clean-up in Thailand.

Some coral reefs were badly damaged but are expected to recover, while a few beaches on Thailand’s tourism jewel, Phuket, saw broad swathes of sand washed away and will need reconstruction to return them to their previous splendour.

But most environmentalists agree that the damage has been limited.

Breather for natural resources

The tsunami, ironically, has done some good to Thailand’s exhausted natural resources.

It has driven tourism numbers down along the Andaman coast, giving overexploited beaches, coral reefs, mangrove forests and idyllic islands a much-needed breather from the hoards of holidaymakers.

It has washed clean sand into bays and led to swelling fish populations as thousands of fishing vessels were destroyed or damaged by the waves.

Most importantly, it triggered a massive clean-up operation that has removed tonnes of trash from coral reefs, sea beds and coastlines.

“It has given us an opportunity to clean up almost everything,” said Thavivongses Sriburi, director of the Environmental Research Institute at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

The aftermath also is an opportunity to flesh out Thailand’s broader policies on the delicate balance between preservation and progress.

However, conservationists said the government has missed the opportunity to improve its environmental standards.

“The government is looking at tourism only,” Thavivongses said, citing a $100-million rehabilitation plan approved by the Cabinet but focusing mainly on reviving the tourism industry.

Thailand does have key conservation legislation in place—notably an environmental Act of 1992 and the Constitution of 1997—that enshrines the rights of local communities in conserving natural resources.

But the government and the UN, in a joint report last year, said the country is facing “severe natural resource depletion and environmental degradation”.

Immediately after the tsunami, Phuket authorities pledged to crack down on beachfront development. But construction is already humming along the beachfront, often right in the sand where previous structures were washed away in December.

Phi Phi, the once-sublime island so devastated by the waves, and Khao Lak, the strip of beaches north of Phuket crowded with ritzy coastal resorts where so many foreign tourists died, are proving to be hot spots for redevelopment concerns.

So is tiny Raja island, an idyllic outcrop south of Phuket where only bamboo huts recently lined the back of the pristine beach and construction was scarce.

Today, an 80-room upscale Raja resort is almost complete, with a two-storey main building fronting the beach and a plaza stretching down to the sand.

The giant waves virtually wiped out the ground floor, but that caused only a slight building delay.—AFP

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