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The delightful Similans. Some lucky dive instructor is probably doing the work.

Divers Struggle to Keep Heads Above Water

Friday, December 28, 2007
THE diving industry in Phuket is an attractive option for work for many people, both from Thailand and overseas. It's a mixture of pleasure and pain.

The pleasure is in some of the people you meet and teach, and especially in the diving that comes with the job.

The pain comes with the long hours, the preparation required and the maintenance that the equipment needs on a daily basis.

Someone on a liveaboard has to perform all the necessary tasks while the paying customers enjoy themselves.

There are more than 100 dive companies on Phuket, one of the reasons why action is being taken to regulate the industry and protect the precious reefs.

If the standard of the reefs cannot be maintained, then the industry will face a less certain future.

Dive instructors earn between 30,000 to 50,000 baht a month while trip leaders can expect 1500 baht a day, and dive leaders 1000 baht a day.

Diving shops can provide a good income but expenses are also quite high.

A shop might have one or two liveaboards and a day-trip boat and income of one million to two million baht. Others might have up to four million baht coming in.

To qualify as a dive instructor, several levels of certification are required.

Changes in the industry on Phuket and the Andaman region are likely to spread throughout the nation.

The radical restructure is aimed at protecting the region's coral reefs from damage by a growing number of visitors.

But there is one other important aspect. Phuket's Governor, Niran Kalayanamit, wants to see more Thais in the water, both as customers and diving instructors -- and less of the money from existing relatively expensive diving courses leaving Thailand.

PADI -- Professional Association of Diving Instructors -- is reportedly responsible for about 90 percent of the training in Thailand, so dominant that it has virtually become the industry standard.

A smaller organization, the Thai Diving Association, is now beginning to offer rates that are seen as being affordable for Thais, with a large discount available during the green season.

The Governor has made his views known within diving circles and more Thais are already being encouraged through lower-cost or even no-cost training to seek jobs within the industry.

At the same time, a series of important meetings has been seeking consensus among current Phuket dive businesses on how the reefs can be protected and standards maintained.

While it has been evident for years that radical changes are required to save the Andaman's coral reefs from over-use and exploitation, only the Similan Islands marine park so far has set the high standard of protection required.

The Similans are closed to divers during the green low season. The use of anchor buoys by dive boats there is compulsory and enforced.

While some dive groups have taken their own precautions to prevent constant damage, without regulation the future of the reefs and the entire industry remains fragile.

There was a time when the industry was so small that all the dive operators in the area knew each other.

Those days have disappeared, with the number of businesses involved increasing dramatically, along with dive tourist numbers and problems of scale and excess.

In 2007, the Governor and the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation launched a five-day scheme to train 50 Thais, many of them sea gypsies, to dive for free.

The aim is that after completing the basic course, some will go on to make their careers in the industry, which remains short on local divers.

Environmentally-aware tourists and residents would be quick to understand the need for Thais to be able to afford to dive and see the wonders beneath the ocean in their own land.

The upshot of the coming revolution may be a two-tiered price system, or perhaps a period of greater competition and discounts, with PADI market share under pressure. At the same time, standards have to be maintained.

Bargain rates on offer elsewhere in Thailand already price several days of lessons for 8000 baht to 10,000 baht -- including accommodation.

This compares favorably with the 11,000 baht to 13,000 baht that is the mid-range on Phuket for training alone. At some resorts, prices for a basic course are said to be 15,000 baht or higher.

Lower prices could bring greater numbers of divers to Phuket, emphasizing the need for the reefs to be protected.

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