ASIA’S “Land of Smiles” is really feeling the adverse effects of overtourism. And it seems to have reached a dire stage, jeopardising Thailand’s valuable marine resources.
As such, under a plan to protect marine resources from swift deterioration, the country will now cap the number of foreign visitors to its marine parks at 6 million a year.
Thailand’s marine parks are located in three regions: The Andaman Sea region on the west coast of Southern Thailand, the west coast of the Gulf of Thailand, and the coast of East Thailand. To date, there are about 26 marine parks, 21 that are legally recognised and five others in different stages of the legislation process.
Of the lot, four parks have been proposed for World Heritage status: Mu Koh Tarutao, Mu Koh Surin, Mu Koh Similan, all three of which are popular scuba diving destinations, and Phang Nga Ba. In 2011, Similan welcomed 75 people a day on average. The number has since jumped to 6,000 tourists a day.
Kasetsart University’s Faculty of Fisheries deputy dean Thon Thamrongnawasawat said 4.8 million foreign tourists from 34 countries visited Thai national marine parks last year, and some 5.6 million are expected in 2018. But not all visitors are responsible tourists.
Thon cited a recent case in which a Western couple was filmed sitting on soft coral near Koh Talang in the Tarutao National Marine Park in Satun. Another case involved a Chinese tourist walking on a coral reef in the Noppharat Thara National Marine Park near Phi Phi island in Krabi.
Last month, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) sought help from its Chinese counterpart after cases of Chinese tourists damaging coral reefs and other fragile sea natural resources started surfacing too frequently.
The Chinese tourism agency was asked to warn Chinese tourists to strictly observe Thai laws and regulations when they visit national parks, temples, seas and coral reefs to avoid damaging fragile natural resources, The Nation reported.
Foreign tourists aren’t the only ones misbehaving. According to Phuket Gazette, three Thai tourists were fined THB1,500 (US$48) each for sitting on a mountain coral in an attempt to pose like mermaids at Mu Koh Surin National Park in Phang Nga last month.
“Cases like this happen almost every day. It just depends whether authorities notice them. Some tour guides have failed to advise tourists to avoid acting inappropriately,” Thon said, adding that soft coral is easily damaged. Thon also urged tourists and divers to avoid it.
Although the plan has yet to be approved by the Department of National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, Thon believes there will be no objections.
Thon explained that if any marine parks are found to exceed their quota, they will face legal action under Section 157 of the Criminal Code, the section that deals with malfeasance and dereliction of duty.
He also stressed that no one should consider themselves above the law, including the natural resources and environment minister, the permanent secretary for natural resources and environment, the director-general of the Department of National Park, Wildlife and Plant, the director-general of the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, and the Ministry of Tourism and Transport.
They will all be held accountable, Thon cautioned. The government has decided that the number of tourists visiting the parks will be capped starting this year or next, he said.
A version of this article originally appeared on our sister site Travel Wire Asia.