The future is not mass tourism

Adis Israngkura
Kanjana Yasen

True, the tourism industry is the country’s biggest income earner. But the massive influx of tourists far exceeds the country’s carrying capacity which has dealt a heavy toll on the natural environment.

True, the global Covid-19 pandemic has brought the tourism industry to a standstill, destroying businesses and millions of jobs. But the rapid regeneration of nature in just a few months during the lockdown also sheds light on how to strike a balance between short- and long-term gains towards sustainable tourism when the country is ready to move on again.

The answer comes from a stream of good news from the coastal seas which have given the country much-needed morale amid the coronavirus gloom.

In Phuket, the sea in front of Patong beach has become turquoise and crystal-clear. In Trang, a large group of 30 dugongs were spotted near the island of Ko Libong. A rare breed of sea turtles also reappeared on the island’s Juhoi Cape.

In Samui, the endangered green turtles (tao tanu) also made a comeback to lay more than 200 eggs on the beach, the first time in six years. After hatching, the baby turtles safely returned to the sea amid the locals’ great excitement and pride. A big school of some 50 black-tipped reef sharks were also spotted in Krabi.

In Phangnga, marine guards spotted about 20 blacktip reef sharks near a popular beach in the Mu Ko Similan Marine National Park. A big school of 100 bottlenose dolphins reappeared in the area. Around four to five endangered leatherback turtles (tao mafuang) also returned to lay eggs on the beaches of Phangnga and Phuket. The number of eggs they laid were the highest for 20 years.

It’s evident. The number of tourists and tourism activities have a direct impact on the health of coastal seas, marine wildlife and other natural resources.

The regeneration of the marine ecosystem is quickly visible, as proven by the return of wildlife in a few months after the country closed its doors to tourists.

It’s clear. Nature can quickly rebound when given the chance. Managing the carrying capacity of the tourist sites is, therefore, key to reviving deteriorated ecosystems and to maintaining their health as the country’s sustainable source of tourism income.

It is important for Thailand not to let the coastal seas be ruined once again by environmentally destructive mass tourism.

This is where the “Blue Economy” comes in.

The “Blue Economy” is the sustainable use and management of ocean resources and coastal tourism not only to serve the national economy, but also the locals’ way of life, while preserving the health of the oceans, seas, and coasts.

There have been efforts to make the Blue Economy the core of sustainable development of marine and coastal resources in Thailand. Unfortunately, they have not taken root yet. This has to change.

The quick recovery of marine resources and wildlife following the reduction of tourists and tourist activities after the Covid-19 pandemic shows that the Blue Economy is the way to go. The government needs to speed up the Blue Economy and mete out concrete measures to ensure that the coastal resources remain healthy and secure for long-term use.

Thailand’s coastal lines are more than 3,100 kilometres long, covering 23 provinces. The country’s maritime zone is more than 320,000 square kilometres or about 60% of the country’s land. The economic value from the coastal seas is immense.

According to a study by the Sub-committee on Knowledge Management for National Marine Interests, the marine resources have generated more than 24 trillion baht for the national economy. The monetary value comes from coastal tourism, fishery, aquaculture, offshore oil and gas production, and commercial marine trading.

A study by the Thailand Development Research (TDRI) also shows that the Blue Economy can be achieved through various measures to ensure that coastal tourism does not exceed the carrying capacity.

For example, by restricting the number of tourists and regulating beachfront activities through strict zoning, be it for accommodation, food selling, or coastal fishing. The number of hotels and other accommodations must be limited under the carrying capacity. The annual closing of national marine parks is also necessary to allow nature to recover. All this is to allow the coastal seas to generate income for the national economy while sustaining the health of marine resources.

Necessity breeds creativity. That is also true in the time of Covid-19. Locked up by city lockdowns, people need to harvest the digital economy more intensely, leading to efficiency and greater productivity in many areas.

Working from home, for example, has reduced the need for transportation, cutting both financial and environmental costs. Online shopping cuts investment and transaction expenses, benefiting both business operators and consumers. Internet banking and e-commerce have also reduced production and labour costs. The scarce resources are then saved to service the country’s other needs.

Despite massive financial losses, the economic crisis from the pandemic offers many valuable lessons for the country. We should not let them go to waste. Instead, we should use them to create a new normal that prioritises sustainable uses of natural resources. As the country reconsiders opening the borders to tourism, it should heed the message from the sea turtles, dolphins, and reef sharks in the Andaman Sea.

Respect nature’s limits. Preserve the environment. Don’t kill the goose that lays golden eggs with mass tourism. If not, the collapse of marine resources is near. For that, we cannot blame the pandemic. Only our short-sightedness. And greed.

Adis Israngkura, PhD, is an adviser for resource sustainability and mitigation policy and Kanjana Yasen is a researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute. Policy analyses from the TDRI appear on alternate Wednesdays.

First Published: Bangkok Post on September 23, 2020