Tidal wave of irresponsible tourism suffocates Thailand's paradise reefs

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The Independent Online

Beneath the vivid blue Andaman Sea, Phuket's coral reefs are in ruins. Just as Thailand prepares for a surge of visitors, with the government aiming to double its tourist revenue, marine biologists have warned that careless development has wrecked two-thirds of the reefs surrounding the resort island. No wonder authorities are getting that sinking feeling.

Beneath the vivid blue Andaman Sea, Phuket's coral reefs are in ruins. Just as Thailand prepares for a surge of visitors, with the government aiming to double its tourist revenue, marine biologists have warned that careless development has wrecked two-thirds of the reefs surrounding the resort island. No wonder authorities are getting that sinking feeling.

Seen from a high-rise hotel room or a deserted beach, the vistas of forested limestone islets that featured in a classic James Bond speedboat sequence and The Beach are as breathtaking as ever. But one of the world's top 10 yachting and diving destinations is slowly mutilating its 14 sq km underwater garden.

Sludge and debris washed from construction work across the island is the main cause of the reefs' demise, Nipon Pongsuwanthe, a coral specialist from the Phuket Marine Biological Centre, said. Commercial fishing and day-tripping divers have also harmed the delicate coral formations. And government researchers said this part of the Andaman Sea was awash with 10,000 tons of rubbish. Floating garbage has increased by 10 per cent since last year.

"Tourism has increased and tour groups irresponsibly dump litter," said Suwit Khunkitti, the environment minister. In co-operation with the Scuba Diving Association of Thailand, his ministry dispatched 100 underwater dustmen who retrieved 300kg of rubbish from around Koh Racha Yai, near Phuket.

Most of the harmful flotsam and jetsam was left by fishing trawlers, but soggy cigarettes, used condoms, dirty nappies and polystyrene cups were evident as well.

Most damaged coral around Phuket was found at the 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 standing on the coral while they clear masks were blamed for some of the destruction. But even a flipper stroke too near the fragile living organism can harm coral.Upmarket or remote islands, including Koh Phi Phi, Koh Surin and Koh Similan (a protected archipelago) suffered significantly less damage.

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

Thai environmentalists are equally dismayed by a 240-km petroleum pipeline in the works, planned to link Middle Eastern oil producers to consumers in East Asia, thus avoiding a long tanker journey around the Malay peninsula.

Few of Phuket's 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 Thaksin Shinawatra, the Prime Minister. "Thais support tourism, but don't care about environmental conservation," said Pinjai Vanapruk, an activist.

Aggressive promotion of the so-called Andaman Triangle, which includes Phuket plus the 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 accounts for 6 per cent of Thailand's economy.

Promoters recently launched a feasibility study on developing Phuket as a duty-free port city, similar to Langkawi in Malaysia. Phuket has become home to a lively expatriate community, serviced by international schools and airlinks. Now the island's airport is destined to become a hub for South-east Asia's burgeoning no-frills airlines as well.

Neighbouring Singapore, which supplies half a million of Phuket's 4.2m tourists every year, is considering building a new terminalto service budget airlines. Prices can be lower even than bus fares.

Environmentalists are keen to educate visitors. 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," Jatuporn Suralertrungsun, a scuba diver, told the Bangkok Post.

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