On pretty much any morning in Jomtien Beach, you can take an early stroll on the beach and find it carpeted with garbage. On Pattaya Beach, schools of dead fish and jellyfish have been washing up on shore for the past several weeks. Even seas off of Pattaya’s Near Islands are lime green and frothing with slimy good brought on by huge over populations of plankton feeding on the garbage in the water.
Inland the situation isn’t much different. Leave your windows open for more than a day or two and you’ll find your high-rise condo covered in greenish-black soot. Mammoth tour buses clog the streets and our lungs with their billowing diesel clouds. Sewers overflow during rainstorms, belching up feces and all manner of crap onto the streets. And, in Pattaya, every street or alleyway is a trashcan.
Quite simply, runaway development killed Pattaya. And it’s doing the same all over Thailand.
Witness a recent scathing report from the National Geographic Society on the ongoing environmental destruction of Phuket. NatGeo tasked 522 “experts” to assess the impact tourism is having on the world’s top island destinations on a scale of 1-100. Phuket only scored 46, meaning the island is in “serious trouble.”
“Chaotic development,” said one expert. “The Thai people do not realize what a beautiful island we have. They continue to over-exploit all the island’s resources. No building code harmonizing construction with the natural settings, especially on Patong Beach (ugly high-rise building). We missed the window of opportunity after the 2004 tsunami to clean out illegal coastal development. Very sad.”
“Phuket’s original charm as an astonishingly beautiful, unspoiled, and culturally rich destination has been completely lost,” said another.
“A planning disaster!,” said yet another. “(Phuket’s) reputation for bars and illicit activities overwhelm the natural charm of the Thai people. Prostitution and urban sprawl rampant.”
“Too much tourism development without a plan,” cried yet another. “Patong is a classic sex-tourism destination, probably worse than Bangkok. Some nice resorts and beaches. The water ‘looks’ fine, but is polluted.”
Critics were quick to jump on National Geographic, pointing out rightly that it appears it only looked at Patong. But the fact is by even the Thai government’s own admission, Phuket, Pattaya and Samui are polluted and overdeveloped. Phuket and Pattaya, in fact, were the first two cities declared “pollution-control zones” in the 1991 Environmental Act. That act, Thailand’s first “green” law, set environmental quality standards, designated conservation and pollution-control areas and awarded government cleanup funds.
The law, however, did little to slow Pattaya’s overkill development, which arguably has only increased in scale in seven years since the law passed.
“The economically successful Thai “fast track” model is based on the experience of Pattaya which grew from a fishing village to an international tourist resort in two decades. It is tempting to follow this model and results can be achieved at great cost, such as large foreign investments and the exploitation of sex tourism,” wrote Institute of South East Asian Studies professor Lin Sien Chua in her 2003 book, “Southeast Asia Transformed: A Geography of Change.” “Pattaya signifies uncontrolled growth by the private sector and environmental damage.”
According to Chua, fast-growth tourist destinations require 5 percent annual growth to develop. But 10% development, in all but very new resorts, leads to “overheating.” Development in Pattaya, by comparison, grew at an average 20% per year between 1981 and 1985, according to the Bank of Thailand’s National Statistics Bureau. Even since 1995, the bureau estimates GDP growth in Pattaya at 9%.
And it’s not letting up. Sifu Robert McInnes, president of developer McInnes Corp., has predicted property development in Pattaya will average 10% per year over the next five years. (Of course, he has a financial incentive to make the numbers sound good.)
McInnes also said he expects property prices to quintuple over the same period. With such huge increases in prices on the horizon, it’s no wonder developers are looking for “the next Pattaya.” And their target is not all that far away: Koh Chang.
Located about four hours drive from Pattaya, Koh Chang is the fastest-growing resort destination in Thailand. This past year saw a bumper high season for this beautiful island of beaches and mountains. It has everything from five-star hotels to rental huts on a lonely beach. Marine and coral life is exceptional and its beautiful blue waters are clean and clear.
But the island is under pressure. Ten years ago there was nothing but bungalows along White Sand Beach. Five years ago it had one big hotel. Today all of White Sand is built up. Recently, local Thai officials, pushed by the hotels, have begun lobbying Bangkok for a water pipeline to stoke the island’s growth even more. Search the Blogosphere and you’ll find developer websites just barely hiding their exhilaration.
“With its mountainous jungles, waterfalls, unspoilt beaches and relatively quiet atmosphere, Koh Chang is an eco-lover’s dream,” real estate magazine Property Report was quoted on the ASEAN Property Blog. “The island’s western region is where most development is taking place, due mainly because that’s where the more picturesque beaches lie.”
While announcing that Koh Chang is indeed going to be developed in the country’s “next premium beach resort,” government officials have vowed to not make the same mistakes made in Pattaya, Phuket and Koh Samui. Authorities on the island have imposed strict building regulations and directives for beachfront developments, such as limiting all structures to a maximum height of three stories. To control the indiscriminate development that wrecked Pattaya, 85% of Koh Chang has been set aside as a national park.
The same promises were made, however, on Koh Phi Phi, which now has also been declared a pollution-control zone. Lonely Planet’s “Thailand’s Islands and Beaches” handbook from 2004 notes that authorizes have widely flouted the Environmental Act to build up the island.
That the same year Thailand’s Pollution Control Department surveyed 14 major tourist beaches and found that none of them fully met its stringent criteria on proper management that would otherwise help maintain these natural resources in superb condition, according to The Nation newspaper.
“Beach areas such as Pattaya have become internationally infamous as examples of how development can lead to environmental degradation and pollution,” the ASEAN Regional Centre for Biodiversity Conservation wrote on its website. “These problems have now shifted to the islands in the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman Sea.”
In recent years, the Centre said, Hat Nopharat Thara off Koh Phi Phi and Khao Laem Ya off Koh Samet have been affected by the rapid growth in tourism activities. In just one year of tourist resort development on Samui, Phanga, Koh Tao and the Ang Thong Marine National Park, “coral reefs were significantly degraded to a cover of 20%.”
“Although the revenue generated from the tourism industry is high, environmental damage through habitat loss is usually not counted,” the Centre said.
All of this is not to say there hasn’t been progress on the environmental front. Indeed, in some ways, Pattaya is much cleaner and better than it eight years ago. Back then, t-shirts that said “I Survived a Swim in Pattaya” were as common as today’s “Bad Boys Go to Pattaya” shirts.
That all changed with the opening of the $60 million waste-water treatment plant that transformed Pattaya Bay from a steaming stew of raw sewage into technically swimable water. But in the past two years, Pattaya’s continued growth has hampered even that plant. During high season, the Pattaya Mail reported due to such high demand, only 60% of the city’s water was coming through the water treatment plant. The rest was direct from local reservoirs. So much for drinking the tap water.
Hotels are realizing, however, they have to start taking their impact on the environment more seriously. Aside from promoting “eco-tourism” — which Chua said in her book is “not sustainable” in Thailand due to low numbers and inexperience – hotels are now banding together under the umbrella of the Green Leaf Foundation. The group goals are to help hotels and related businesses to better respond to environmental development and protection; establish a nationwide classification of environmental standards in Thai hotels and raise awareness of Thailand’s travel and tourism industry in promoting environmental quality and preservation.
Still, all too often, Thais have only truly been motivated about environmental issues when non-Thais were the ones perceived to be doing the damage. Two of the biggest “green” protests involved the filming of Leonardo DiCaprio’s “The Island” on Phi Phi and the extended shoot of U.S. television series “Survivor: Thailand” on Koh Tarutao.
Thailand has taken its first steps towards recognizing that tourism and tourist sites must be developed in a sustainable manner,” a report from the Tourism Authority of Thailand stated. “TAT is committed to developing tourism in a way that is environmentally responsible, sustainable, and in harmony with the needs of local communities,”
The report, still available through TAT, was issued in 1997.
This story originally was published on The Pattaya Ghost blog. Visit daily for more Pattaya and Thailand updates.