Over tourism has finally hit the land of smiles.
Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation has officially announced that the paradise island of Koh Tachai will shut down, indefinitely.
One of the most beautiful islands in the Similan National Park off Phang Nga Province, Koh Tachai is famed for its stunning coastline and pristine dive sites. The island is only 12sqkm with a government-recommended capacity of 70 people, yet the beach is filled with over 1,000 tourists every day. This number is on top of food stalls and tour boats that ply the island. In fact, according to the Similan National Park Department, Koh Tachai is actually designated as a primitive zone, and not a tourist site.
“It’s a miniature paradise – so long as you can get away from the crowds,” Steve Downing, a diver from the UK who has visited Koh Tachai, told BBC. “Unfortunately, a lot of inexperienced snorkelers tend to ruin the fragile reef systems by bashing into the corals, poking about, trying to take the best photos of fish by feeding and chasing after fish. People aren’t interested in preserving the wildlife, they’re only interested in taking photographs.”
The island is now caving under the effects of over tourism. Its natural resources, the beaches, and the reefs are quickly deteriorating. There is great fear that if this continues unabated, the island will be damaged beyond repair.
“People are visiting this island, and it’s too overcrowded,” Thanya Netithammakun, the general director of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation was quoted in the New York Times. “It’s too much for the island to take. It has deteriorated, and it is necessary to close it down to allow the conditions around the island, both land and marine, to recover without interference from tourists’ activity. Otherwise, it may cause great damage.”
As part of the masterplan for marine resources management in the Andaman Sea, the closure aims to rehabilitate the environment on the island and in the sea without further disruption.
“If it’s not closed now, we’ll lose Koh Tachai permanently,” Asst Prof Thon Thamrongnawasawat, deputy dean of the Faculty of Fisheries of Kasetsart University, said.
For us travellers, the closure is bittersweet. While we are disappointed at the fact that we would not be able to visit Koh Tachai (it was voted as Thailand’s most beautiful beach after all!), we are comforted by the fact that the Thai government is proactively protecting its environment. Tourism should encourage people to protect a country’s natural beauty and heritage, not the opposite.
Those who have travelled to Thailand before the country became a regular feature on travel magazines often complain that “it’s not as beautiful as it used to be.” That’s because the effects are real. The millions of dollars that international tourists are bringing comes with a great cost to the environment.
Thon told the New York Times that rare blue coral in Koh Tachai had been damaged by tourists and that restaurants had begun operating on the beach to serve the crowds of visitors.
“We can conserve and resist improper tourism,” he wrote on Facebook.
Thon has been criticised by the tourism industry for voicing the need to protect the environment. For Thon and his peers, this closure is a turning point in Thai conservation. The move signals that the government is finally prepared to resist tourist activities that harmed the country’s natural resources.
“This is a new hope for sustainability in our country,” he said.
The Similans National Park is closed to tourists from 15 May to 15 October due to the dangerous monsoon season. When all the islands re-open in mid-October, Koh Tachai will remain closed.
Fortunately for divers, two deep dive sites in the area would still be accessible.
Despite the three-month closure notice sent to tour companies, there are 14 Thai tour companies who were still found selling tour packages to Koh Tachai at a tourism fair. Tourists to Thailand are advised to watch out for tour companies selling trips to the island after 15 Oct.