Koh Chang and Koh Mak

I am back now from a short trip to Koh Chang and Koh Mak to scope out a research project being organised by DASTA (Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration) and ISMED (Institute for Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises Development). The concept is to explore tourism development within the concept of the low carbon destination. DASTA has been working with organizations on Koh Mak, Koh Kood and elsewhere to promote low carbon development, principally through the use of solar cells.

We went first to Koh Chang to determine whether there is any opportunity for doing research on low carbon tourism there. These are some scenes from the long drag across White Sand Beach. It has become very commercialised and lacks any real feeling of authentic Thainess – which is why it now does not suit all tourists.

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There are more Russians about the place, many of them family groups – a few years ago, there were very few accompanying children but this is a maturing market. During the day, they may go out on the cruise ship (2-3000 baht per person per day) or some other activity, which is quite expensive. Plenty seemed to be taking advantage of the street food available in the evening, perhaps as a low cost option.

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The parts of the island we looked at seemed to be in more or less full great transformation flow – although there are supposed to be some constraints on commercialisation based on family-based ownership of the land. Anyway, we moved on to Koh Mak,

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Koh Mak is a much smaller and quieter island. Like all the neighbouring islands, it rapidly rises up from sea level so there are plenty of cliff views and resorts. DASTA has already enlisted 17 organisations (private and public sector) to participate in the low carbon concept and we attended a workshop on the subject there.

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We also had chance to view many of the more prominent sites on the island and interview business owners and government officials. The Cinnamon resort hotel has the longest pier and the lighting is powered by solar cells.

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When the sun goes down, the lights go on – very picturesque and, based on solar power, as sustainable as we are likely to see. That most tourists seem to be unaware of the solar panels and the low carbon destination concept does not seem to be entirely relevant – it seems to me contradictory to imagine that tourists will fly from Europe (nearly all are European) to the Gulf of Thailand if they were committed to a low carbon lifestyle. That does not mean people are antithetical to the idea but that it is not likely to be a determining factor when choosing a destination. The low carbon elements can be focused on the supply side and can be effectively invisible on the demand side.

There are some problems with embedding the concept more deeply into society and economy. A lot of influence on the island is wielded by a small number of families and, where family-owned businesses are concerned, there is rarely much transparency. It is also difficult to enforce specific regulations (e.g. for new buildings) at a level which is neither national nor provincial – even provincial level regulations are problematic in Thailand, where there is such emphasis placed on ‘unity’ and uniformity. For example, there is an agreement that high carbon activities such as jet ski use and hire will not be used around the island, yet there is nothing that can be done to prevent people travelling from other islands on them – we watched a gang of a dozen of them arrive Sunday morning. There is also the problem of replication of efforts, since interests are building their own piers and integrating the ferry service with resort ownership and, therefore, creating a series of semi-monopolies in which there is little incentive to improve quality of service. Many of the waiting staff, for example, seemed to be low-cost Cambodian migrants (the border is close) and the amount of training undertaken seemed minimal.

Anyway, the research will develop and these are just some initial observations. More will follow.

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