The popularity of Southeast Asia’s tourist destinations is increasing. One island that is well-known for its diving and snorkeling has asked to be included in a popular circuit. Can development and nature be in harmony?
It felt like it was old times when we took the high-speed ferry to Koh Samui (one of Thailand’s largest islands), to Koh Tao, its smaller neighbor, which is known for its affordable scuba diving, snorkeling, idyllic beaches, and bays.
The double-decker catamaran was almost full. The bow and main cabin were stuffed with backpacks and rolling bags as the boat of 300+ people cut through the azure waters. The majority of the white, European tourists, many of whom were families, filed into the warm August sun to board the catamaran. It was jam-packed with people waiting under a long, blue canopy.
However, appearances can be deceiving. Tourism’s return to Thailand, and other parts of Southeast Asia, has been slow. While tourists crowded the dock to see the afternoon ferry arrive, there was only one catamaran company operating in August. There were three other companies with more boats. Many business fronts were closed or abandoned behind the explosion of signs advertising diving schools, snorkeling tours, and motorbike rentals.
Contrary to Europe and North America where travel began rebounding as early 2021, North America saw a surge in tourism. However, foreign tourists started returning to the region only after the spring of 2018, when countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia opened their doors to them without any quarantine.
Thailand has dropped the remaining Covid-19 “Thai Pass”, registration restrictions and registrations in July. The government is targeting 10 million visitors this fiscal year, which is a significant number but only a quarter of the 2019 record. This industry will not reach that level until China, which contributed 25% of foreign arrivals to Covid before it, removes its strict zero-Covid policies, and allows its citizens to travel again.
Tourists on the three-island island circuit of Koh Samui and Koh Phangan in the Gulf of Thailand still marvelled at the clearer waters and the sharks, turtles, and fish that gathered around the islands during the pandemic. After June’s legalization of marijuana in Thailand, tourists are also experiencing the pungent smell of marijuana.
Daniel Lundgrun was walking with three young Germans along a quiet terrace beneath the Big Buddha statue on Koh Samui’s north side. “I thought it might be more crowded,” he said. It’s quite empty here.
Unspoiled landscapes can be transformed into tourist attractions
Koh Samui, in a sense, is emblematic for the transformation of parts of Thailand and Southeast Asia, once unspoiled and abundant landscapes, into jam-packed tourism playgrounds.
It is a magnet for wealthy people who live in mountainside condos and Six Sens. Budget travelers can also enjoy it as a place to stay, spending between $10 and $25 per night at hostels and budget hotels. They can also spend a few dollars on local dishes like pad Thai or chicken rice. It was popularized by Chinese tourists before the pandemic, which saw a rise in popularity. In 2019, there were 300,000 Chinese tourists in Koh Samui, or 13 percent of the total 2.4 million visitors.
The island, which covers 88 miles, was once a paradise for coconut farmers and fishermen. It has smooth roads that wind over steep hills and offer breathtaking views of the arcing coastline. Key beaches like Chaweng, Lamai, and Bophut are all located on the east coast. Regulations limit buildings’ height to 12m, which is three stories. Because of this, developments are low-slung. The island also retains elements of isolation in areas south and west.
The Soi Green Mango, a pedestrian street, was trying to regain its mojo on the commercial strip just behind Chaweng Beach. Late August saw the closure of most back alley bars that featured young Thai women dressed in revealing clothes calling out “Hello, welcome!” However, the Green Mango warehouse-like nightclub saw more Westerners filling the dance floor and tables than the Thai women.
Officials from Koh Samui stated that 70 percent of the accommodations had been reopened in July and August. However, almost all businesses were still open in places like Fisherman’s Village, north, where the main pedestrian road is lined with high-end boutiques and restaurants. Frederic Georgelin (a restaurateur) said that there was a possibility that the next high-season, which runs from Christmas to March, will be even more successful than the one before Covid.
“Already many hotels reserve bookings every single day, some are already full, and the prices for rooms or villas are increasing very quickly,” stated Mr. Georgelin. He owns La Cantina Tex-Mex restaurant and an Italian-Asian fusion restaurant. He also sat at the bar greeting French friends. “So hopefully many people’ll come to Samui.”
This island is often the starting point of the circuit for travelers. They relax at the beaches and restaurants on Koh Samui and then travel to Koh Phanan for the full Moon party or a meditation retreat. Finally, they cruise to Koh Tao to dive and snorkel.
Conservation fee: A new fee
A new tourist fee was imposed by Koh Tao in April. A banner stating the fee (which is 20 baht or 55 cents for a can soda) in Thai and English greets visitors. It states that the fee is for “port management”, waste management and conservation of Koh Tao’s environment and biodiversity.
The fee was introduced by the local government in conjunction with the UN Development Program’s biodiversity financing initiative BIOFIN. Watcharin Fahsiriphon is the island’s mayor. He says he will use the money to pay for the island’s “big mountains” of trash. He also plans to promote alternative diving activities like bouldering and hiking, and to fund projects to repair coral reefs.
The introduction of the user fee was part a wider rethinking during the tourism pandemic. It was a response to the damage that tourists were causing to the island’s iconic attractions, from snorkelers trampling coral to oil-spreading boats to erosion due to construction. This pause led to regular beach cleanups and underwater cleanups by community groups and diving groups as well as new coral restoration programs around Koh Tao.
“Koh Tao people want tourists to enjoy the beauty of nature. We keep working on it,” Dr. Watcharin said. He framed portraits from former and current Thai royalty and hung them on the wall of his small corner office, which overlooks lush hillsides.
There are many challenges. Single-use plastic is widespread on the island, despite the fact that some restaurants and hotels offer water-filling stations and metal straws or bamboo straws. An abandoned renewable energy project that was started over a decade ago is now a distant memory. A single wind turbine stands motionless on a hilltop, as a constant reminder.
After at least nine European tourists disappeared or died in Koh Tao, the reputation of the island was marred by the “death island label” in the middle decade. This came after two British tourists were killed on a darkened beach in 2014. Many tourists who were interviewed in August said they felt safer on the island then in their homes in Europe.
Even though the fee is small, it’s not being collected regularly. The fee was handed to the government workers by tourists as they left the pier via one exit. However, no one collected the fee at the second exit and staff were not on duty when the ferry arrived. The fee, which could be collected fully from half a million visitors annually in years prior to Covid-19, would raise around 10 million baht or about $275,000, approximately a quarter the current budget.
“For the last five months, we’ve learned lots and this is like the trial stage,” Dr. Watcharin said. He owns two hotels as well as a diving company and has been the island’s long-serving public health officer.
Leaning into ‘eco’
It’s possible to find a small villa with a view on the water for $20-40 per night or to spend $150 for a house with a pool and a stunning view of the sea, spread over eight miles of undeveloped hills and breathtaking aquamarine bays. No traffic lights are available, there are no five-star resorts internationally; the building height is limited to 6m, which is two stories. Jet skis are prohibited.
Vie Boursmui, along with other Thai and foreign divers, had plenty of time during the pandemic. The government’s marine resource department granted them permission to begin eight coral restoration projects on the island. Mr. Vie, a teacher for over 20 years, spent three months in Aow Leuk Bay, taking natural coral pieces and attaching them to concrete blocks and metal frames. These will eventually be covered in coral.
He said that climate change has decimated most corals in the warm shallows. Therefore, divers have set up 600 feet of coral plantations in cooler waters 10-15 meters below the surface.
“The nature brings customers,” stated Mr. Vie, divers from Britain, Australia, Israel, Spain, and the Netherlands flocked to Ban’s Diving Resort to enjoy a post-scuba sunset cocktail. “So we have to protect the environment.”
Nearby, a hub for reimagining the island’s life and tourism sits on the palm-fringed northern end of Sairee Beach. Locals call it Soi Island. Visitors were bronzed and relaxed as they perused the Vegan menus at VegetaBowl and Factory restaurants. They also browsed the handmade soaps, coasters, and soaps made from recycled plastic at May & Co.
Witchuda Damnoenyut (who goes by May) had an idea for a project during the pandemic. She purchased a plastic shredder and melting machine, as well as molds, and began to turn the detritus into soap dishes, coasters, soap dishes, and medals for last May’s island’s first mountain trail marathon.
Her Plas To workshop was opened last year. She sells recycled products in her May & Co. handicrafts shop and natural soaps shop as well as other green-minded businesses like vegetarian restaurants and the EcoTao lodgein The Hills.
“I feel like Koh Tao does a lot in comparison to other parts Thailand,” stated Ms. Witchuda. As her sole worker, she banged out molds while others with screaming metal saws turned a vacant storefront across the street to a weed and wine bar. “Independent businesses try to attract people by being more eco-friendly.”
Rene Hagen helped customers to take standup paddleboards out for a sunset ride off Sairee Beach, just down the street from May & Co.
After cycling around the globe for three years, Mr. Hagen from Denmark and Rachel Yaseen, his American wife, purchased Evasion, an outdoor sport company. They wanted a place to rest and enjoy their time. Untamed yoga was opened a few doors down. They also purchased three villas with sea views in the hills of the south side island to rent out during high season.
“It’s difficult to say what’s not to love — there are a lot of great restaurants and it’s very affordable; the diving here can be so easy and chill and we can sit in a pool and watch the sharks and turtles from the villa,” Mr. Hagen stated. Due to the steep hills, hiking is challenging here.
Evasion also offers wakeboarding and tubing. He’s making their boat a solar-powered craft to give tourists a peaceful ride that doesn’t damage the coral. He has also ordered eight electric bikes and is currently looking into renting motorbikes.
EcoTao was built on a steep hill in the forest just months before the pandemic halted tourism in March 2020. It is possibly the island’s last eco accommodation. The 12 bungalows are made from bamboo and teak. Most of the electricity comes from 100 solar panel and rainwater is used to shower.
Yves Frangioni is a French entrepreneur, sportsman, and founder of Eco-Tourist. He moved to the island 16 year ago and believes that the eco trend may be beginning to catch on with businesses and tourists.
He said that “We opened December” and that they are always busy. This was in a telephone interview while he was on his way to France for a few months. “I hope many people start like me because it’s important to the small island, the planet and everything.