In an effort to stem damage done to the ecosystem of popular tourist spot Koh Tachai, Thai officials last week announced its indefinite closure to visitors. The island, which regularly sees thousands of daily arrivals, will close to allow the natural environment, both above and below the water, to recover from its current dismal state.
Since then, three other islands have been added to the list — Koh Khai Nok, Koh Khai Nui and Koh Khai Nai are now also closed until further notice and, most recently, the government added more than 10 popular dive sites to the list as well, according to CNN. The dives include sites at the islands of Koh Ma Prao and Koh Chumpon, where up to 80 percent of the corals have been reported as severely bleached. The move to ban diving here is deemed necessary if the corals are to have any chance of survival.
Many of the areas close yearly for the monsoon season, but unlike other years, they will not reopen once the monsoon is over. And closures may not stop here; the Thai national park administration is currently deciding if it should close more popular sites, including the Phi Phi Islands, Phang Nga Bay and Nopparattara Beach.
Loved to Death
Coupled with this year’s stronger-than-usual El Niño, the overarching problem in Thailand is one of popularity. The country used to be a seasonal destination with the bulk of visitors, mostly backpackers, coming in the high season from November to February. Now, Thailand has become a mass-tourism destination, with daily flights from practically every nation in the world landing at its airports, and yearly visitors counting in the tens of millions. Thailand has also become a year-round destination, with travelers increasingly seeking the lower prices and somewhat smaller crowds of the off-season. This means that the local wildlife, whether land-based or aquatic, has little or no time to rest and recover from the droves of tourists.
While there have been some local initiatives to make Thai tourism more sustainable, these have been few and far between, and have been dwarfed by the mass-tourism trade. Thai authorities have claimed to be caught unprepared for the challenges of the sudden influx of tourists, but critics point out that the government has been well-prepared enough invest in larger airports, develop infrastructure to and from tourist destinations, and issue permits to build more and larger hotels.
A few other countries have taken similar steps to limit the damage to their most popular dive sites. Malaysia has famously instituted limits on visitors to Sipadan Island, and recently even added scuba-diving park rangers to ensure that divers respect the national park rules.