by Penny Walker, The Telegraph, June 6, 2018
In the same week that one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, Maya Bay, closed for four months as a result of overtourism, Airports of Thailand (AOT) board of directors approved the construction of two new airports – one in Chiang Mai and one in Phuket.
Both popular tourist destinations, Phuket and Chiang Mai already have an airport apiece, but the additions are planned to accommodate increasing demand. According to AOT president Nitinai Sirismatthakarn, each new airport will cost around 60 billion Thai baht, with construction starting in 2019.
The second Chiang Mai airport will be built in Lamphun’s Ban Thi district, while Phuket’s will be constructed in Phang Nga’s Ban Khok Kruad district. Both are anticipated to be completed by 2025 at the latest - and serve an extra 10 million tourists.
Very much a victim of its own success, Maya Bay shot to fame after the release of Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Alex Garland’s novel The Beach starring Leonardo DiCaprio back in 2000. Found on Koh Phi Phi Leh, Maya Bay has seen a rapid increase of visitors over the last 20 years, with as many as 5,000 people arriving each day on boat trips from the bustling mainland resorts of Krabi and Phuket during high season (November to February).
As a result, snorkelling, swimming and power boats have caused devastating damage to the local reefs. According to research, 72 per cent of Thailand’s coral reef is under threat, with a rapid deterioration occurring in the last ten years. Polluted water from seaside hotels, the dumping of plastic waste and damage from boat anchors are the main causes.
The poor condition of Maya Bay and images showing people packed onto the sand in vast crowds have finally spurred local authorities into action, with Maya Bay now closed until September 30 to allow the corals time to recover.
Dorothy Heng, director of Eastravel, said the company has been warning visitors about the condition on Maya Bay for some time. “We have taken care to advise those who wish to include the experience on their itinerary of the overcrowding and damage to the environment that this new fame has caused,” she said. “We hope that closing Maya Bay will allow nature to recover.”
In the wake of such drastic action, the approval of the new airports has been criticised by environmentalists who argue that not only are popular Thai destinations like Maya Bay suffering, but that the infrastructure is not in place to accommodate yet another influx of visitors.
Thailand’s overtourism problem has been widely reported with low-cost holidays pedalled in Chinese markets attributed much of the blame.
According to Ministry of Tourism and Sports Permanent Secretary, Pongpanu Svetarundra, visits from the Asian country alone increased by almost 32 per cent in April. Chinese visitors accounted for just under 46 per cent of all inbound tourists to the country during this time – a staggering 987,000 out of over 2.1 million. Overall, visitor numbers to Thailand increased by 8.8 per cent in 2017 to 35.4 million, with Chinese tourists the largest single national group.
It appears that the reports have put off British tourists though, with the number of UK visitors to the country dropping by almost 13 per cent in April.
Just last week, Lee Cobaj, Telegraph Travel’s expert in Bangkok commented that it was “good to see Thailand putting nature ahead of profits for once”. But the announcement of the new airports goes against all that locals and environmentalists have struggled to achieve.
Today, Lee told Telegraph Travel; "the temporary closure of Maya Bay to allow the marine environment to recover is, of course, a step in the right direction, but it’s really little more than a sticking plaster in a region being crushed under the weight of tourism."
"It’s disappointing to see that the Thai government’s response to rampant overtourism is to upgrade the airports at two of Thailand’s busiest entry points rather than focussing on sustainable less-damaging approach to its rapidly-increasing visitor numbers", she continued.
"Much of Phuket has already been concreted over, with ugly buildings, and little planning or concern for the environment. Without a radical new approach from the military junta, I would expect that long empty golden beaches of Phang Nga and Khao Lak will share the same fate."
The move also contradicts the comments of Jiraporn Prommaha from the Ministry of Tourism and Sports, who told TTG Asia recently; “we are trying to push for CBT [community-based tourism] to disperse tourists away from popular sites beyond Bangkok, Chiang Mai or the beaches to promote the ‘unseen Thailand’.”
Instead, it would seem that the gates will be opened to yet more visitors, and instead of pushing them in the direction of new, undiscovered Thai locations, they are being herded straight to problem areas – to destinations already struggling to cope and suffering the consequences of overtourism.
Tane’s wildly optimistic opinion is that the Chinese traveller will swiftly evolve and that “mass tourism will become history in [the] future”. Not a exactly a concrete business plan.