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Could COVID-19 save Thailand's tourist-ravaged coast?

Lessons from Railay pit post-pandemic environmental resurgence against tourism imperative

Once overflowing with the tourists, a beach on Thailand's renowned Railay Peninsula takes a rest as COVID-19 keeps most visitors away. (Photo by Sarah McLean) 

On a recent morning, with hardly another soul to crease the sands, and only the lapping of gentle waves to ruffle the stillness, I experienced a serious case of deja vu on Thailand's Railay Peninsula, the site of some of the world's most beautiful beaches.

This, I remembered, was what I had encountered during my trips to the Railay area decades earlier, before mass tourism overwhelmed its sweeping arcs of sand walled by towering limestone cliffs. It is sad to say, but the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has restored some of what that tide of humanity degraded.

Residents in the tourist-dependent southern provinces of Phuket and Krabi, which includes Railay, speak of dolphins frolicking with fisherman, manatees munching peacefully on sea grass and frequent sightings of dugongs and reef sharks -- all rare events before the pandemic. At the hotel where I was staying (and paying rock bottom rates) a hefty monitor lizard waddled nonchalantly toward the villa.

All but gone were the earsplitting, fume-spewing and unregulated longtail boats that in pre-pandemic times ferried tour groups to the three stunning Railay beaches accessible only by sea.

As wonderful as this new serenity seemed, my delight was tempered by what I saw and heard around me: shop fronts shuttered, bars and restaurants nearly empty, the jobless forced to seek employment elsewhere or survive on slashed incomes. Revenue from foreign tourists, mostly banned from entering Thailand, cannot be replaced by the small number of domestic visitors like me.

Payorm Numchan best expressed my mixed feelings. First visiting Railay more than 20 years ago, she became addicted to rock climbing -- one of the peninsula's other great attractions -- competed internationally, and eventually returned to open a tourist climbing operation.

Payorm remembers a small fishing community, then an initial flow of backpackers followed by a tourist explosion, with hotels rising cheek-by-jowl along Railay's West Beach. She describes the frenetic development as "crazy." Other visitors agreed, lamenting in online comments that "greed and money have taken over" and that "the halcyon days are sadly well and truly over."

"When COVID came, I experienced my most beautiful time here," Payorm said. "Nature was resting peacefully. We saw turtles emerge from the sea for the first time. Coral beds were not being broken. Boats were few. There was quiet."

Yet, at the same time, her income plummeted to as little as 1,000 baht (about $31) a month. Friends around her cried in desperation. "There is always some good mixed with some bad in this world," she told me.

The Phuket-Krabi area, with a combined population of about 1 million, catered to more than 15 million tourists a year in the boom years, with its annual toll of 2,000 visitors per sq. km the biggest on Earth, according to Columbus Direct, a travel insurance company. The area had clearly exceeded its tourist carrying capacity.

Before the pandemic, environmentalists and enlightened travel industry leaders were already sounding the alarm, and there was debate among government officials about attracting fewer but higher-spending visitors instead of the ubiquitous Chinese and Russian group tours.

Now some of these proposals are reemerging as the country looks toward its post-COVID-19 future. "A huge challenge awaits Thailand as plans are afoot to open up the country to rescue the tourism industry: How to prevent a new round of environmental onslaught from mass tourism," says the Thailand Development Research Institute, a Bangkok-based think tank.

Krabi's Koh Phangan Online Magazine, based on the eponymous offshore island, is urging the adoption of a sustainable "blue economy" that would limit access by tourists into sensitive areas and mandate annual closures of marine parks to allow for regeneration of flora and fauna.

The precedents are not good, however. I remember clearly the hopeful voices raised after the 2004 tsunami, which devastated swaths of the area, including the Phi Phi Islands -- once a coral-reef-strewn jewel of the Andaman Sea. The disaster presented a great opportunity for an environment-friendly fresh start. But with barely a pause, places like Phi Phi returned to their past ways with a vengeance, leaving some parts looking like an urban slum.

Now, even without a firm date for Thailand's reopening to foreign tourists, reservations for future holidays are brisk (bookings from Sweden are at a record high, according to tour agencies). And Krabi Airport, which feeds the Railay tourist market, is set to double its capacity to 8 million passengers a year.

Perhaps the most ominous problem is the already intense pressure to rebuild, at any cost, the moribund tourism industry, which employs millions of people and is the biggest contributor to Thailand's national income.

I am hoping for the best, but I fear that neither we lucky people who saw Thailand before the tourist boom, nor our children, will ever again experience the vibrant coral beds of Phi Phi or the magical solitude of Railay.

Denis D. Gray is a writer based in northern Thailand.

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