The entire stretch of white beach of Koh Kradan is completely empty of people. There are no footprints in the sand and no buzz of longtail boats, only the sound of gentle, clear waves.
This island gem in the Andaman Sea, some 10 kilometres off the southern coast of Thailand looks something like it might have in the past. It is experiencing a short reprieve ahead of what is sure to be another bumper tourism season.
It is the monsoon period and the island is officially closed. For four months between June and October authorities block access in order to ensure safety of visitors during turbulent months of weather, as well as to allow nature to recover and rehabilitate.
For generations, locals have known about the natural beauty of Koh Kradan. And it has been a lightly-trodden tourist destination for many years.
Earlier this year, Koh Kradan was selected as the world’s best beach by World Beach Guide, a UK travel website. The guide cited the unspoilt nature of the island, its powdery sand and clear waters, despite its proximity to the mainland.
The explosion in popularity that resulted – especially among domestic travellers – since the ranking award has presented new challenges to maintain sustainability on the island.
In April and May, periods where Koh Kradan would typically be relatively quiet, up to 2,000 people were arriving to see it daily.
“Suddenly, tourist boats came to Koh Kradan. Hundreds of them came and there was no space for some boats to go in. All the boats from different islands were hired to go there. I have never seen anything like that,” said Aren Prakong, the president of Trang Fisherfolk Association.
Local tour operator Rungroj Benmood said that while Koh Kradan was always popular during holiday periods in Thailand and among small groups of intrepid overseas tourists, this year has been something very different.
“Koh Kradan is beautiful. It has a beautiful beach and coral reefs. I wasn’t that surprised to see that it was picked as the world’s best beach. Once the announcement was made, the tourist number tripled,” he said.
“Even some fishing boats were hired as well. Some of the fishermen didn’t want to take the tourists, but we all agreed that since the tourists came, we didn’t want to disappoint them.”
Nearly the entire 2.4 square-kilometre island falls under Hat Chao Mai National Park, meaning authorities have a mandate to enforce an annual, seasonal closure period.
This began in Koh Kradan more than five years ago, and similar closures of national park areas happen right across Thailand during this time of year.
There is no permanent local community on the island, and all of the small resorts on the island are meant to cease operations during the seasonal closure and not bring in any tourists. When CNA visited, one resort remained open despite the decree, amid an ongoing land dispute.
As the island breathes, local officials from the Department of National Parks are making preparations for when it can reopen on Oct 1. A modern tourist centre has been constructed and management plans are being put in place to better organise increased arrivals and deal with waste.
“After it was selected (as the best beach), the number of tourists has increased a lot, which is a good opportunity to start over,” said Pharit Narasaridkul, the chief of Hat Chao Mai National Park.
“The increased number of tourists means that Trang province’s economy is better. There’s more spending in the economic sector, social sector and also in local areas. So, we consider this as a good opportunity for the local people to upgrade their quality of lives,” he said.
Closing the “world’s best beach” seems like a difficult decision to make, when the economic benefits of staying open could be lucrative for local communities.
Yet, there appears to be consensus that the annual closure provides a win-win, for tourists and the environment alike.
“If we don’t take care of the island and let it be ruined, we won’t be able to make any money from the island. For the next season, we don’t prepare anything in particular but we just try to keep Koh Kradan the way it is,” said Wichit Kunji, the manager of Kradan Beach Resort.
“It’s good that the island is closed. We don’t feel like we lose out on money because we know that the coral reefs can recuperate and nature can get its rehabilitation time,” said tour operator Rungroj.
“We don’t want to end up like Phuket or Maya Bay.”
A MASS TOURISM CASE STUDY
Prominent Thai marine scientist Thon Thamrongnawasat said partial closures will only have very limited impacts on the environment.
Thailand has implemented more rehabilitation periods for vulnerable marine habitats in recent years, including the high-profile shutdown of Maya Bay, made famous by the film The Beach.
Maya Bay was closed for more than three years before being reopened in early 2022. The local environment thrived during that period and now there are strict rules and restrictions on visitor numbers, boat docking and swimming.
But simply restricting tourist arrivals does not guarantee results, Thon, a researcher at Kasetsart University, explained.
“Partially closed does not mean much. Seasonal closures are mostly only for visitor safety,” he said.
“If you want to talk about consistent ecosystem recovery, we have to talk about long-term closures. And sometimes long-term closures don’t work. To achieve something you need active management and to close the whole island, not only a few spots on the island.”
Rising sea level temperatures due to climate change, beach erosion, coral bleaching and plastic pollution are all factors contributing to the degradation of Thailand’s marine environment.
Thon is confident though that Koh Kradan can avoid the mass-tourism pitfalls that have occurred in other nearby islands. The lack of private land where future development could occur is a major reason. Its location is also not convenient for large overseas tour groups.
“Koh Kradan is far from other hubs, that’s really important. Trang province is not a big tourism hub. I think we can handle it,” he said.
“If you compare it to other places like Koh Lipe, I’m much more concerned about that,” he said, referencing another popular tourist island close to Malaysia, where infrastructure development has raced in recent years.
“If more and more people come, we have to think about better organising how they go in and out, not just coming in everywhere over the coral reef. At the moment, it’s still the monsoon season in the Andaman Sea so we still have time to organise and talk to the longboat operators.”
Communication with locals will be important to protect Koh Kradan and other fragile destinations like it, according to Paul Pruangkarn, the chief of staff at the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA).
The COVID-19 pandemic has left communities reliant on tourism exposed and eager to recuperate their losses. He said Thailand remains an interesting case study in the merits of environmental closures in the wake of overtourism.
“Overtourism was sort of rearing its ugly head before the pandemic. You’ve seen the backlash from the local communities here,” he said.
“Then you started seeing destinations close for environmental protection. This is sort of a case study. Nobody knows how to really deal with this. I think a lot of destinations are looking at it to see, well, how does it work? Is it a good plan?
“We shouldn’t overlook the voices of local communities and get them involved in strategic plans of any destination.”
Source : CNA