An onslaught of tourists is stressing out Thailand

Maya Bay on Phi Phi Island, which has been closed down by authorities for four months to give the island time to recover from environmental degradation caused by constant tourist traffic. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG) - Back in early June, a small pilot whale gained global attention after it ingested plastic bags and packaging, and then died in southern Thailand. It was not a good look for the nation's tourism industry.

A month later, Thailand's Tourism Minister Weerasak Kowsurat holds up a picture frame containing pieces of an instant-noodle packet recovered from the stomach of the whale.

For him, it is emblematic of the environmental and other stresses of a record tourism boom that could see 40 million foreign arrivals - equivalent to over half the nation's population - in 2019.

"Tourism can create, and at the same time, tourism can disrupt," said Mr Weerasak, 52, in an interview in his office in the Thai capital. "Congestion is no good for anyone, including the hosts and the guests."

A surge in Chinese holidaymakers has stoked the growth in the tourism sector, which now accounts for roughly 20 per cent of South-east Asia's second-largest economy.

Managing the inflow is proving challenging, underlined by a tragedy last week that put the spotlight on safety standards after more than 40 Chinese tourists died when a boat sank off the coast of Phuket.

The disaster has not had a significant impact on Chinese enthusiasm for holidays in Thailand but the government has to be proactive to prevent a wider fallout, said Mr Thongyoo Suphavittayakorn, a spokesman for the Association of Thai Travel Agents.

Many of the overseas travellers head to Bangkok, beach hot-spots like Phuket or the popular northern city of Chiang Mai, straining local resources.

Asked if Thailand is now coming close to its tourism capacity, Mr Weerasak said: "Oh yeah."

The minister is looking to promote visits to less-travelled spots inside the country to tackle congestion in popular destinations as well as addressing national income disparities. Yet that throws up a new challenge: How to preserve the character of local communities and heritage sites such as the ancient ruins of Ayutthaya that might have to absorb a wave of foreign visitors.

Mr Weerasak said he is seeking to "encourage domestic and international travellers to be very responsible, not only to the culture but also to the environment".

Consider the case of Maya Bay on Phi Phi Island, which was made famous by the year 2000 movie "The Beach" starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

The bay has been closed down by authorities for four months to give the island time to recover from environmental degradation, such as coral damage from boat anchors and rubbish on beaches, caused by constant tourist traffic.

"The increased influx of tourism is already having very visible impacts on the Thai seas and coasts," Mr Eike Schoenig, director and chief resident scientist at marine environmentalist group COREsea, said in an e-mail.

"Few countries have good track records managing mass tourism."

The Thai tourism minister is planning to install a reservation-only system to control the number of visitors to the bay. Boats will be forced to dock at the back of the bay, so that there will only be a single entry point for tourists.

Thailand's military government is also considering imposing a travel insurance system to prevent tourists arriving without any protection and ending up as a burden on the state if they get into trouble, he said.

Despite the difficulties, tourism is going to remain a critical engine for Thailand, where economic growth is accelerating but lags behind some neighbouring countries. Government data shows revenue from foreign tourists is projected at well over US$60 billion (S$82 billion) next year, and that spending remains focused mainly on major cities.

The country is pushing ahead with investment to expand airports as passenger traffic climbs. State-run Airports of Thailand plans to pour billions of dollars into boosting capacity in Bangkok as well as the tourist-heavy spots of Phuket and Chiang Mai.

Countries such as France and Italy that get heavy tourist traffic manage to disperse visitors, said Mr Weerasak."That is the pattern we want to see," he said. "The numbers keep increasing. It all depends on how you manage them."

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