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Environmentalists take a harsh view of Phuket's future. And perhaps they have a point unless the sharks are brought under control.

Phuket's Self-Harm Syndrome

Sunday, November 25, 2007
PHUKET has suffered a blow to its reputation with the findings of a survey by a leading magazine indicating it is no longer a tropical island paradise, noted for its natural beauty.

Too much concrete and too many people, it seems, are combining to sweep Phuket towards ecological disaster.

Glossy advertising brochures encourage island residents and visitors to think that Phuket is still a fine example of a natural enviroment, in balance with progress.

That's a delusion. It just isn't true. Over-development and mass tourism are putting the island's future in peril, and the results of the latest survey simply confirm this.

For every individual and organisation making an attempt to do the right thing, there are others doing the wrong thing, often at a profit.

Phuket's future may be as just another once-beautiful treasure destroyed by blunders, greed, selfishness and hypocrisy.

The latest warning of this nightmarish outcome can be found in the current issue of 'National Geographic Traveler', the world's "most widely read" travel magazine.

The magazine chose a panel of hundreds of experts in sustainable tourism and destination stewardship and asked them to vote on the present condition of 111 of the world's best-known islands.

In the magazine's own words: "The world's most appealing destinations ???? islands ???? are the ones most prone to tourism overkill.

"Our 522 experts vote on which ones avoid the danger, which are succumbing to it, and which hang in the balance."

Where did Phuket finish? Close to last, in position 106.

Phuket is in the category headed "In Serious Trouble" and just a point or two above the worst islands in this global survey.

Phuket is not yet in the lowest category of "Catastrophic: All Criteria Very Negative, Outlook Grim."

But it is far too close for comfort -- and likely, on current trends, to fall even lower.

Readers of The Phuket Post should ask themselves one question: Do you believe Phuket will rate better or worse when the next survey is taken?

The truth is that Phuket is barely coping with mass tourism and a property boom, yet both industries encourage more and more visitors at every opportunity.

The truth is that measures designed to protect and preserve the best things about the island's natural bounty are inadequate and are being flouted every day.

Look at what the 'National Geographic Traveler' panel of expert judges had to say.

"Phuket's original charm as an astonishingly beautiful, unspoiled, and culturally rich destination has been completely lost," says one.

"A planning disaster! Reputation for bars and illicit activities overwhelm the natural charm of the Thai people. Prostitution and urban sprawl are rampant," says another.

In the words of a third judge: "Too much tourism development without a plan. Patong is a classical sex-tourism destination, probably worse than Bangkok. Some nice resorts and beaches. The water looks fine, but is polluted."

A fourth judge says: "Chaotic development. The Thai people do not realize what a beautiful island we have. They continue to over exploit all the island's resources."

Well, perhaps that's not strictly an accurate comment. Plenty of Thais realise what a beautiful island ????we???? have.

It's just that they, along with many horrified visitors from other nations, are powerless to do anything. They can only look on aghast while opportunists ???? both locals and foreigners -- do their worst.

Better roads, budget flights, property development and upgraded facilities encourage more people to come, accelerating the process of degradation. The nearby coral reefs are subjected to over-diving and no longer rate as exceptional gems.

Glorious seafront vistas across the Andaman Sea and Phang Nga Bay, once a joy that could be viewed by everyone, are vanishing forever behind the walls of private homes, condominiums and resorts.

Nondescript shophouses along every main road make the island's urban environment bland and uninviting.

The top 20 islands in the survey reflect an approach that is vastly different to the one being taken by the people who have a say in Phuket's future.

First on the list is the Faroe Islands, Denmark, followed by the Azores, Portugal, and others in both north and south hemispheres.

It has to be said that many of the better-scoring islands are in cool parts of the world and sometimes remote.

But there are plenty in the top 20 where people live in harmony with nature, too. Scotland's Shetland Islands and Skye are there, along with the Australian island-state of Tasmania, plus Iceland.

Apart from climate, the big difference between the top islands and Phuket is that the beauty of the best ones is protected by laws and regulations that are enforced.

When it comes to tropical islands, plenty in the Pacific and the Caribbean are faring much better. Even Phuket's biggest regional rival, Bali, rides 24 positions higher up the ladder.

So what went wrong here? By rights, Phuket's beaches and coral reefs should have been declared a "national treasure" two generations back and protected by a marine park.

Tin mines were the threat then. Today it is tourism. Foresight and action was lacking then, just as it is now.

The 'National Geographic Traveler' says: "We all risk destroying the very places that we love the most.

"As micro-worlds, islands are also more vulnerable to population pressure, climate change, storm damage, invasive species, and now, tourism overkill."

If 30 years ago someone with foresight had been able to predict the future, Phuket's beauty might have been preserved for all generations to come.

Left to the forces of commerce, the simple pleasures and qualities of village life have giving way to shopping malls, sex tourism and suburban values.

Green turtles that once bred in large numbers on Phuket's sands and returned each year until recently have been driven from the beaches, probably forever.

In the words of 'National Geographic Traveler', "Beach-blessed islands draw sun-and-sand resort tourism development that can get out of hand quickly, although there are exceptions.

"All the islands, even the lowest scoring, have great experiences to discover.

"To protect them, to restore them, we must value them as much as resort developers and cruise companies do. Even more."

Today and tomorrow, the battle to preserve the remaining pieces of Phuket's stunning natural blessings must continue. It's in the hands of every one with an involvement on the island.

It was the fourth time the magazine, with the National
Geographic Center for Sustainable Destinations and George Washington
University, has conducted the survey. Results can be seen at
http://www.nationalgeographic.com/traveler/features/islandsrated0711/islands.html



WHAT CAN BE DONE: Buy Back the Beachfront
There are still some fantastic spots along Phuket beaches where land owners have opted not to sell out to the highest bidder. These places, around small and delightful beaches, represent the last chance to preserve pieces of the island's coast intact for future generations. The Government should offer these true-Phuket land owners the opportunity to keep their island properties just the way they like them, forever. Deals can be struck now so that when these owners eventually pass on, their land can go into the hands of the nation as small parks, to be preserved forever. Their relatives should be fairly compensated. In this way, several small "green band" beaches can be protected for all time as examples of the way the island once looked.

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