Thailand's dive industry stung by marine park site closures

Thailand's dive industry stung by marine park site closures

Several popular dive spots are now off-limits due to coral bleaching, but divers stress that they make up a small fraction of what's available in Thailand's marine parks

Coral bleachingThe Thai government announced that 18 diving sites will be off limits for up to 14 months to allow the reefs' bleached coral to recover.A decision to close a selection of diving sites at seven of Thailand’s leading marine parks -- including Phi Phi, the Similan islands and Surin island -- has left the country's dive industry gasping for breath.

Battered by the tsunami in 2004, the watery holiday paradise of Phuket and the Andaman Coast now faces a second natural disaster: coral bleaching.

The sudden decision to temporarily close 17 dive sites in the Andaman Sea and one in the Gulf of Thailand made by the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Planned Conservation is an attempt to preserve marine life that may suffer due to human activity. 

For years now, the dive industry has been expanding rapidly due to the attractions of the region's renowned Andaman Sea troves. But then, paradise grew too sunny.

Monsoonal cloud cover failed to arrive on schedule in April and May last year, leaving the coral reefs exposed to excessive heat. The prolonged high water temperatures caused bleaching that robbed the coral of its color. Unless recovery comes quickly, this will soon kill large tracts of reefs.

Although professional divers are known for being every bit as caring for the marine environment as researchers, the environmental action has been interpreted by some in Phuket as a belated attempt to impose control on the diving industry.

'It's time the government realizes that a balance is needed'

Fearing a drop in tourism, divers are now making the point that the closed sites make up a small fraction of what's available in the marine parks. 

''To say an entire marine park is closed when it's only a single dive site is like saying the Grand Canyon is closed when a single campground is shut," says Khao Lak dive center co-owner Koen De Wit. 

Torsten Richter, general manager of Le Meridien Khao Lak Beach and Spa Resort, says the region to the north of better-known Phuket has many dive shops and some of the best diving in the world. 

''We have mixed emotions because the coral reefs obviously need protecting,'' he says. ''If the closures can be restricted, we don't foresee any serious problems, especially because five-star and four-star resort guests don't come just for the diving.''

However, agreement on the need to protect the reefs and allow them to recover from coral bleaching has also brought a focus on the damage being done by the open-slather approach to cashing in on dive day-trippers.

What's the point, advocates say, in protecting the reefs if Thailand's tourism authorities encourage as many people as possible to come without ensuring they are taught not to stand on reefs or break off bits of coral for souvenirs?

Some less scrupulous dive operators also fail to maintain their engines and dump waste into the sea. 

Standards are lax, signs of pollution are everywhere. And if nothing has been done to stop this, who will enforce regulations to protect the closed dive sites? 

Pakdee Kuthanang, a Phuket-based dive operator now branching into hydroponics because she fears the industry is beyond control, says coral closures won't solve the problem.

''The reefs in shallow waters are the ones that are in danger from coral bleaching, and they are also reefs that attract the most snorkelers,'' she says. ''It's time the government realizes that a balance is needed between the constant drive to increase tourism numbers, and the protection of Thailand's treasures.'' 

Pakdee is concerned about bleaching but even more concerned about a looming man-made disaster. Phuket, she says, is already suffering from price-gouging, so much so that she is abandoning her premises in the west-coast resort town of Patong because the landlord recently doubled the rent. 

Increasing numbers of tourists are also complaining about extortionate tuk-tuk taxi fares and rip-offs being perpetrated with increasing frequency by Patong's jet-ski operators. 

Even floating over a magnificent coral reef, it's becoming harder these days to escape the conclusion that when it comes to greed versus green, greed usually wins.

Full list of Thailand sites now off-limits to divers 

Phang Nga province: Mo Koh Surin Island 's Ao Sutep, Ao Mai Ngam, Koh Ster, Ao Pakkard and Hin Kong. Mo Koh Similan's East of Eden and Ao Faiwab.

Krabi province: Nopparat Thara Park, Phi Phi, Hin Klang.

Satun province: Hat Chao Mai National Park's Koh Cher. Mu Ko Phetra National Park's Koh Bulon Mai Pai and Koh Bulon Don. Koh Tarutao National Park's Kohtakiang, Koh Hin Ngam, Koh Rawi and Koh Dong.

Chumphon province: Koh Maprao National Park's Mo Koh Chumphon.  

Alan Morison is an award-winning journalist and in the wake of the tsunami was one of the few reporters permitted to view the forensic autopsy process aimed at identifying nameless victims. He lives in Phuket and in 2008 founded the regional news and information site, phuketwan.com.
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