What dangers to Thailand's burgeoning beach tourism industry

Thai beaches not recognized as the national treasures they are

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Beaches are responsible for the great majority of the $46 billion that tourism brought to Thailand in 2013. Shouldn't such assets be considered national treasures? Especially when they have the potential to continue as an infinite resource, bringing in huge wealth far into the future?

Some people believe that Thai beaches deserve special protection and should be the subject of careful long-term planning, and perhaps additional protective legislation. But Thai beaches have received virtually no protection during the 30 years since beach tourism began to take off in Thailand – save the recent military-inspired clean-up of Phuket's beaches. The amount of damage and degradation beaches have suffered right across the country is substantial, and in many cases irreversible.

The root cause is buried in cultural and historical prejudices. Past generations of Thais avoided the beach like pestilence, and the beachfront land adjacent to those hot, undesirable zones was considered infertile and low grade. The old story repeated endlessly in Koh Samui and Phuket tells of the black-sheep sons of the family being left the poorest of the family lands, on the beachfront. Since tourism arrived in the 1980s all such beachfront land in Thailand has been transformed into treasure, turning many black-sheep sons and poor coconut farmers into multi-millionaires.

Beachfront land on even the remotest Thai island is now exorbitantly expensive, with huge tracts of it now in the hands of wealthy urban families, big companies and 'land-banking' businesses. The private sector has certainly transformed its thinking about the value of the beach – but when will the government catch up?

environmental degradation eats into beaches everywhere

Environmental problems attributed to tourism:

Depletion of Natural Resources

Depletion of water resources

Land degradation

Pollution

Solid waste and littering

Aesthetic Pollution

damage to coral reefs

This reads like a list of problems that mass tourism is now threatening Thailand's beaches with. But it's not. This list is from the World Tourism Website, and refers to the problems that mass tourism visits on countries worldwide. Thailand is not alone – but nor is it immune from the myriad problems that come with the waves of mass tourism that descend upon the country each year.

Beach environments are especially susceptible, more so than attractions like the cities of Bangkok or Chiang Mai, markets, entertainment venues or Buddhist temples. Ever more foreign visitors are bypassing the old beach destinations of the Mediterranean and heading to tropical Asia seeking less developed beaches with more natural environments. As those numbers swell, however, the very environments that attracted the visitors in the first place are being degraded or even disappearing altogether. Natural beauty is far more fragile than the man-made kind. Also, 'development' of beaches often results in the outright destruction of the natural environment as green is replaced with concrete.

Environmental degradation is now running amok in many of the country's beach destinations, and so far there have been few efforts to stop it. Phuket has had two development master plans over the years, but both were ignored. Set-back regulations to keep permanent structures well back from the beach could have kept Phuket's shorelines looking green and beautiful for the long-term. But again, corruption and official malfeasance have smashed the teeth from the regulations, leaving short-term greed to triumph while the island's natural beauty continues to fade rapidly.

Thailand's 2013 tourism numbers are indeed world-winners. However, if local business and officialdom do not heed the warnings of the experts in the WTO, those soaring tourist arrivals will only bring greater urgency to Thailand's need to grapple seriously with the list of problems above.

Amazing Thailand may have been blessed with lucky geography, weather and good timing, but when it comes to environmental problems, luck drops out of the game. Smart planning, substantial investments and hard work are the saviours now needed if Thailand is to remain at the top of regional tourism.

over-development marches onwards from Pattaya & Patong

Turning a beach into a long-term tourism asset requires much more than just keeping the sand and water clean and clear. The area behind the beach needs planning and controls too – something that is virtually unknown in Thailand. The country's most famous example of over-building is Pattaya, where pretty coconut plantations were concreted over so completely that most areas beyond the beach look like a scrappy, low-class Bangkok suburb.

Unplanned development has also overtaken Phuket's Patong, which wisely changed its name from Patong Beach to Patong City. How sustainable are over-developed, under-planned beach cities of this kind? Without its commercial sex business Patong would possibly dry up and die, while Pattaya without a sex industry would shrivel, kept alive only by its proximity to Bangkok.

What other development models does Thailand have for turning its amazing beaches into sustainable, long-term assets? None, it seems.

Without proper planning and controls with real teeth, the Pattaya model – cut down everything green, fill every space with concrete – continues a relentless march along the coastlines of the country. On Koh Samui, Chaweng Beach's back road is already blighted, but now turning to the sex industry. The once beautiful rice fields of Kata in Phuket have since grown the ugliest crop of concrete boxes along narrow, twisting lanes. Ill-considered development is now sinking greedy talons into lesser-known, island beaches around the country, including Koh Phangan's Haad Rin, Koh Tao's Maenam and Koh Lanta's Khlong Dao. Even the remote and once-pristine island of Koh Lipe is being transformed by bulldozers and instant urbanization.

If Thailand wants its beaches to be called 'tropical paradise' in another generation, both environmental degradation and over-development will have to be tackled and arrested with serious planning and tough regulations. Luckily, the country is still in the early stages of mass beach tourism, and with only a few exceptions, the damage to most beaches remains moderate or minimal, and is not beyond salvation by smart governance.

A photo record of the development of Kata Beach from rice fields to concrete jungle can be seen here.

conflicting Asian & European beach fantasies

The traditional Asian and European concepts of the ideal beach fall into direct conflict – and Thai planners need to understand the reasons – if they ever get to creating master plans for beaches around the country. The popular European beach fantasy sees a couple on a quiet, little-known beach in an environment so natural it could be enveloped in rainforest. The very idea horrifies many Asians, who never want to find themselves on a lonely beach nor anyplace near the forest. For Thais and most other Asians the beach is a place for family fun and games; lots of activities, plenty of people around tables of food and drink, preferably making and lots of noise. Thumping music, children shrieking, the sounds of people having fun; it's the way a visit to the beach should be.

Thailand is lucky enough to be able to cater to all cultural desires – so far – by the luck of having so many beaches, not as a result of thoughtful planning for each market's needs. Perhaps, someday, those creating a master plan for Thailand's beaches will have reason to consider such quirks of foreign culture.

Thailand is not alone facing beach degradation in Southeast Asia

Neither do neighbouring countries like Myanmar and the Philippines. But perhaps the most serious beach degradation is found in Vietnam. It's a sad state that Thailand could learn from , shown in photos at http://thebeachfrontclub.com/guide/vietnam-beaches-the-sad-state-of-vietnams-beaches-in-photos

To see some of Thailand's more obvious beach degradation problems, see:

http://thebeachfrontclub.com/guide/koh-chang-thailand-environment-development-problems

http://thebeachfrontclub.com/guide/phi-phi-islands-thailand-natural-environment-faces-mass-tourism

http://thebeachfrontclub.com/guide/patong-beach-phuket-thailand-danger-environment-development

http://thebeachfrontclub.com/guide/kata-beach-phuket-environment-dangers-a-beach-front-resorts

http://thebeachfrontclub.com/guide/surin-beach-phuket-mass-beach-tourism-a-environmental-problems

http://thebeachfrontclub.com/guide/bang-tao-beach-phuket-beach-vendors-environment-a-destruction

http://thebeachfrontclub.com/guide/karon-beach-phuket-environment-water-quality-a-karons-future

recognizing that similar faces don't always mix

Even among Europeans there are more subtle cultural conflicts that affect tourism on Thai beaches. The huge influx of Russian tourists has upset many long-time European users of Thai beaches. The insular, unsmiling Russians are often considered rude and unfriendly by Western Europeans, and over the years numbers of Phuket hotels have tried to avoid accepting Russian guests, or to limit their numbers. When the number of Russians grows too large in a particular hotel or beach, many other guests leave.

In Phuket the traditional market of Western Europeans had shrunk in 2012 to an estimated 12% of all visitors, replaced largely by Russians, Chinese and other Asians, for whom crowded and noisy beaches are acceptable.

Thailand's vibrant economy and free-for-all capitalism

With few regulations enforced, Thailand's economic climate has encouraged the establishment of hundreds of bungalows, hotels and resorts, restaurants and various structures on islands and beaches from Koh Lipe near Malaysia to Koh Kood on the Khmer frontier. Press stories of encroachment on public lands and beaches by such tourism developments are almost everyday. Until the military authorities began a sweeping, and controversial, clearance of Phuket's beaches in July this year, it seemed anyone could build on beaches anywhere with little concern for the law.

It is not only in tourist destinations that beaches are encroached upon, though. There are countless cases of both beach hotels accommodations and private house building walls out over the sand, filling in the public beach and claiming it as their private land. In some cases encroachers have taken so much beach that the public cannot walk down it any longer at high tide.

When military rule is again just a memory, will things return to the old, corrupt ways under which Thailand's beaches are unprotected from the constructions of unthinking locals and greedy developers?

by John Everingham

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