BY: CAROLINE ROLF
The tropical country’s coastline and islands are home to some of the world’s most incredible white sand beaches and scuba diving sites. While these magnificent sites drew nearly 30 million tourists to the country last year, boosting Thailand’s struggling economy, officials have made a bold move to refuse tourism profits in order to save the environment from total destruction.
Thailand has closed Koh Tachai, an island in the Andaman Sea known for its surrounding clear blue waters and vibrant coral reef in an effort to ease the negative effects of tourism. Its once pristine beaches and abundant marine wildlife have become overcrowded with visitors and have started to deteriorate right before our eyes. Thai experts have decided to indefinitely close the island, as well as Koh Khai Nok, Koh Khai Nui and Koh Khai Nai—a trio of tranquil islands off the coast of Phuket in order to give the damaged reefs some time to recover from coral bleaching.
The National Parks department has closed at least 10 diving spots after finding bleaching on up to 80 percent of some reefs.
Coral bleaching occurs when waters reach unusually high temperatures due to human activities such as speedboat rides, snorkeling and building development. When corals face environmental stress, they shed the algae that provides them with their colour. The coral quickly becomes bleached, turning white and eventually dying. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) this has been a major problem for reefs all over the world in the past ten years. The Great Barrier Reef has recently suffered its most damaging coral bleaching in history. Although it is possible for reefs to recover after bleaching with proper care, it will require time and a strict policy against tourist tampering.
While some local initiatives have been taken in order to make Thai tourism more sustainable, they have been too infrequent and ultimately overshadowed by the mass-tourism trade that makes up 10 per cent of their GDP. The department plans to set new routes for tour boats entering and exiting as well as blocking off the areas that are now banned from exploring, at least for a while. Other countries have taken similar precautions to protect their islands and dive sites close by. Malaysia placed a cap on their visitors to Sipadan Island and recently hired scuba diving rangers to ensure divers are respecting the rules. Although Koh Tachai will be closed come October, we will see if it remains so come tourist season starting in November.