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Similans limited: Tourist quota shakes tour operators

PHUKET: In a move to prevent more environmental damage by heavy ‘overtourism’, the number of tourists allowed to enter Mu Ko Similan National Park, a key natural tourist attraction just over 80km northwest of Phuket, has been halved with a quota brought into effect on Monday (Oct 15).

tourismeconomicsenvironmentnatural-resourcesmarine
By Tanyaluk Sakoot

Saturday 20 October 2018, 09:00AM


Tour boats line the shore at Ao Kuerk on Similian Island during the tourism high season in January. Photo: Kaj Schmidt

Tour boats line the shore at Ao Kuerk on Similian Island during the tourism high season in January. Photo: Kaj Schmidt

The order was issued by Thanya Netithammakun, Director-General of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP), on Oct 8, Similan National Park Chief Ruamsilp Manajongprasert told The Phuket News this week.

Despite the strong opposition by tour operators, the quota – allowing only 3,850 visitors per day – will stay in effect, Chief Ruamsilp assured.

A total of 1,625 persons per day will be allowed to enter the park via Koh Miang (Island No 4), 1,700 will be allowed to enter per day via Koh Similan (Island No 8) and a further 525 persons per day will be allowed entry to dive at any of 21 dive sites in the park, he explained.

“The limit on the number of tourists will remain in effect. We have no thoughts on changing this,” Mr Ruamsilp said.

The move is to prevent further environmental damage by heavy tourism, and follows the DNP in June this year banning overnight stays at the islands, whereby it is no longer possible to book bungalows or stay at the camping sites.

“The main aim is to reduce damage to corals and the environment by tourists, tour operators and divers,” Chief Ruamsilp explained.

“From Oct 15, 2017 to May 15, 2018, the park issued B1.1 million in fines for people breaking the law in the park. This included people smoking cigarettes, using drones in the park, boats dropping anchor in banned areas in the park, and divers touching and feeding marine animals and touching or breaking corals,” he said.

“All this is reason enough for us us to introduce the quota,” he said.

Chief Ruamsilp also noted that the improvement in the marine environment at Koh Tachai, which is also in the park but has been closed to all tourism activities since May 2016, provided inspiration for the quota.

“After we saw that the environment at Koh Tachai is improving, we had research conducted into what should be done to protect the rest of the park,” he added.

As for Koh Tachai, he said, “It will remain closed for now. We have no idea when it will reopen.”

Research by experts from Kasetsart University had identified that sun creams worn by tourists entering the water were having an effect on the corals, Chief Ruamsilp noted.

“The research team found that chemicals in the sun cream lotions were directly affecting coral growth, making the coral regeneration process much slower,” he said.

“So now we are asking for cooperation from tourists to use sun creams without Oxybenzone (BP-3), Octinoxate, Methybenzylid Camphor and Butylparaben.

“We have also repeated to tour companies to prevent their customers from feeding marine animals, to not drop any rubbish in the park, and that snorkelling tours must be conducted in water at least three metres deep, and the tour boats must be fitted with GPS location devices,” Mr Ruamsilp said.

Regarding how the quota is managed, Park Chief explained, “To visit the park you can either book a trip with a tour operator or buy an entry ticket at the Similian Park Office at Laem Kaen, in Thai Muang District.

Tickets are not available anywhere else,” he said.

“Thais must show their ID card, Foreigners must show their passport,” Chief Ruamsilp added.

Entry to the park costs B500 per adult and B300 per child for foreigners, and B100 per adult and B50 per child for Thais.

SUDDEN IMPACT

Tour operators have railed against the quota, saying that the move will cost jobs and put operators out of business.

Before the quota, the national park saw up to 7,000 visitors a day during the peak season, with 912,000 tourists in total visiting the park last year.

That number has now been halved by the quota.

Nattakit Lorwitworrawat, Managing Director of Sea Star Andaman tour company in Phang Nga, as the President of the Similan – Surin Tourism Boat Association spearheaded the campaign against the quota up until Wednesday (Oct 17), when he resigned his position due to ‘internal conflict’.

“This will have a big impact on us as we have to cancel bookings with agents. We cannot even estimate the revenue this will cost us,” Mr Nattakit told The Phuket News.

“Right now we have stopped selling trips to the Similans, and this affects boat captains, tour guides, staff and other people,” he added.

Suriya ‘Kung’ Thamchu, CEO of Nonthasak Marine, which has been in operation since 1990 and has the largest fleet of speedboats in Phuket, said that tour operators in Phuket have banded together to submit a formal request for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to intervene.

“Yesterday, Phuket tour and boat companies united with companies in Phang Nga to send this request to the Prime Minister's Office through the Phang Nga Governor Siriphat Pattanakul,” Mr Suriya said on Wednesday.

“This definitely will have an impact, which at this stage we cannot estimate the value of. Not only will tour companies be affected, it will also affect van, bus, boat and hotel operators. This will also affect employees as they might lose their jobs,” he added.

“We have not yet decided to stop our Similan trips, we might start again on Oct 25-30, but we have to make discuss this with out board members and management,” Mr Suriya said.

“The cost of tours might increase, but we can’t confirm that yet.”

CALL TO DELAY

Mr Suriya said that the ongoing changes and short notice of such dramatic changes were gaining Thailand’s tourism industry a reputation as ‘unreliable’.

“Especially after the policy to close Maya Bay and Loh Samah Bay, and now to limit the number of tourists at the Similan National Park,” he said.

“It was short notice to me and others (tour companies). I received this notice on Oct 11, then the notice became active (almost) immediately.

“We asked the Department of National Parks to reconsider this policy. We used to have 700 tourists (on trips to the Similans) per day, but now tour companies are limited to 35-70 tourists per a day for each company – and there are 52 tour companies in Phuket,” Mr Suriya explained.

“Please DPN, postpone the quota until next season so we have enough to adjust for tourists. We promise that we will protect the environment, keep areas clean, not drop anchors (on corals) and stay in the dedicated swimming areas as per the national park regulations,” he pleaded.

However, asked why he thought the quota was introduced, Mr Suriya said, “I don’t think the reason is to preserve the environment, or the trash or sun cream at all. We care about the marine environment. We wouldn’t destroy it, for sure – they are doing this for some other reason.”

Asked what that reason was, Mr Suriya declined to answer.

 

 

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Werni | 21 October 2018 - 10:08:05

I went scuba diving to the Similans in March 2013 and was shocked about the amount of damage under water. Broken and damaged corals, much less marine species since my last visit in 2007. At Richelieu I observed divers crawling through softcorals to see small species like a seahorse or ghostpipefish. Speedboats didn't care where to anchor and threw them on corals. The damage must be worse now.

Galong | 21 October 2018 - 08:30:41

You know, you could actually PATROL the park and arrest people/tour operators who are damaging the environment. If I had a dollar for every time I saw someone anchored on coral, I could retire tomorrow! This shouldn't have come to the quota system (which I wholeheartedly approve of). It's the result of the rangers not doing their job in the first place.

vegasbaby | 20 October 2018 - 19:05:43

There are so many beautiful beaches in Phuket that are rarely seen by tourists.  It should be easy for the tour operators to assemble and sell  beach and snorkel packages that are just as fun and popular with tourists, and don't overwhelm and destroy sensitive areas.  But be careful to avoid the beaches with raw sewage...

Kurt | 20 October 2018 - 13:17:02

Dual prizing !   Amazing discriminatory Thainess, smooth as silk.

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