This file picture taken on May 24, 2019 shows Mariam the dugong as she is cared for by park officials and veterinarians from the Phuket Marine Biological Centre on Libong island, Trang province in southern Thailand. A sick baby dugong whose fight for recovery won hearts in Thailand and cast a spotlight on ocean conservation died from an infection quickened by bits of plastic lining her stomach, officials said on August 17, 2019. (AFP/ Sirachai Arunrugstichai)
In the decade prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the number of tourists visiting Thailand's 26 marine national parks increased dramatically, with the majority of them coming from China.
Supporting such high demand, hordes of boats from various travel agencies would enter a prime location, paradoxically scaring away the very same marine wildlife that tourists traveled so far to see.
During the last three years, however, the Thai government has been tackling the problem, to conserve nature, by limiting visitors or closing some once-pristine islands to the public.
For example, in June 2018, the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation took the drastic step of ordering the closure of Maya Bay, a world-famous tourist attraction on the island of Phi Phi Leh, until the year 2021, due to natural deterioration from overcrowding.
The decision has resulted in gradual ecological recovery as seen by the frequent appearance of packs of blacktip reef sharks in the crystal blue waters off the white sand beach, once one of Thailand's well-kept secrets.
However, officials have found the recovery plan cannot easily be replicated elsewhere in the country.
The plan faced many challenges and limitations, especially from the business sector due to high tourist demand and the country's heavy reliance, economically, on the tourism industry.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, people have been urged to remain at home and avoid traveling.
Since Thailand declared a state of emergency in late March to stem the spread of coronavirus infections, many marine creatures have been able to swim freely in their habitats, unhindered by tourist boats and other human activities.
Various species of sharks, dolphins and whales can be found bobbing up and down in the sea in the southern waters, while herds of dugongs can be seen grazing in seagrass beds just off islands once beset by thousands of tourists daily.
According to statistics from the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, 261 dugongs, a threatened marine mammal closely related to the manatee, were counted in Thailand last year.
Meanwhile, a surprising number of the leatherback turtles have crawled ashore to lay their eggs on the beach connected to Phuket International Airport.
Thon Thamrongnawasawat, deputy dean of the Faculty of Fisheries of Kasetsart University in Bangkok, said it just goes to show how the absence of human intervention results in plentiful marine life.
"We have never seen leatherback sea turtles lay this many eggs for at least 15 years," Thon said. "I believe there will be almost 400 leatherback sea turtle babies by the end of the year, breaking the record."
Varawut Silpa-archa, minister of natural resources and environment, has suggested that Thailand's 153 national parks be closed in rotation for an average of three months to sustain ecosystems with high biodiversity yet support tourism.
Also, as part of the "new normal," the carrying capacity per area should be limited to 70 percent of normal amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he said in an interview with Kyodo News.
Besides maintaining the splendor of nature, this would also help curb the spread of the coronavirus, as social distancing and other safety precautions may still be necessary for the foreseeable future, Varawut said.
"If some creatures in our national parks die as the result of human beings, I will shut them down again. I will not let anyone harm the animals," he said.
Varawut noted that he is unaware of any cases of marine animals dying from ingesting plastic bags over the past couple of months of partial lockdown, whereas before, it was a common occurrence.
The new practices, including temporary closures of national parks, have generated much positive feedback, but they also have their share of critics.
Some say closures defeat one of the main purposes of national parks, which is for people to get close to nature. They also argue that the parks should be viewed as educational tourist attractions rather than as entertainment venues.
"We should not view the tourists as enemies," said one Thai commentator going by the name Ben, posting about the issue on social media.
According to Varawut, the country's 26 marine national parks generate considerable income from both domestic and foreign tourists, but Thai marine tourism has fallen into the "cheap price trap."
He explained that despite the superb scenery, Thailand's prime beaches are underpriced, drawing large numbers of people, which in turn causes a gradual deterioration of the natural resources. To compensate for the decreasing quality of the attractions, prices become even lower to attract more people.
"With this cheap price trap, we will have absolutely nothing left by the end of it," the minister said. "It's time for us to really think about Thailand being a destination of quality, not quantity."
As the new changes come, travel agencies and tour operators have had to adapt themselves to the new practices.
Chotechuang Soorangura, 39, associate managing director of N.S. Travel and Tours Co., also predicted that high-end market tours will be more popular in the future.
With a limited number of tourists allowed per location during the new normal, prices will increase due to high demand, he said.
Moreover, higher costs for precautionary processes and sanitary equipment such as alcohol gel, gloves and face masks will translate into higher prices for the travelers to pay.
"The high-end markets are willing to pay extra for the confidence to travel. Cheap price is not the point anymore. We have to offer the confidence," Chotechuang said.
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