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GRAY AREA from the Phuket Gazette

LAST CHANCE TO SAVE PHUKET. Any takers?, January 2007

A monkey eating a banana given to it by a tourist. This is not a file photo; it was taken January 3.

The Bangkok incentives planner called with distress in her voice. "What can I do? My corporate group wants to see the bay, but the entire area is over-developed. What's happening to my country? Don't they know they are killing Thailand? I can't bring quality people here anymore. My business is doomed," she said.

She wasn't the first Thai agent to ask me if there's anything left to enjoy.

I had to say no. With an absence of master planning, the Phuket-Phang Nga-Krabi triangle is rapidly becoming another "tourism gone wrong" scenario.

The next day I attended an event-planning meeting. When introduced to a speedboat operator, I mentioned four-cycle engines. It's meaningless to talk "environmental" to a speedboat operator, so I emphasized profits. "Four-cycle reduces repair and petrol costs, and eliminates two-cycle oil." His eyes clouded over, unreceptive to change even when cutting costs.

The next day, my guests brought plastic bags emblazoned with a big blue speedboat logo. I wondered how many of these bags end up in the sea, killing turtles, porpoises, even whales and whale sharks.

The Hong Kong expats complained, "The trip was horrible. They overloaded the boat, fed monkeys and tried to sell us expensive junk food for lunch. Even the kids didn't eat it.

"We all cried when we saw Phi Phi. We felt like criminals for buying that trip - contributing to the problem."

They won't be returning to Thailand.

Looking at that killer plastic bag, I decided this week to recap my "Gray Area" effort over the past year. I felt like we were being offered a last chance to do something before we kill the goose that laid the golden egg. So, throughout last year, I ran through the following points:

. Don't feed the monkeys. Last year, monkey feeding increased. Russians and Scandinavians are as guilty as East Asians - because they don't get environmental briefings, and we can't expect untrained 150-baht-a-day guides to speak Russian, German and/or Swedish. European tour wholesalers must take responsibility and fill the void.

. Respect the sea. The ocean isn't our natural environment, so take the sea seriously. When we don't, people die. How many more unnecessary deaths must result from a lack of respect for the sea?

. No dumping. Phuket is doing better regarding litter. Some back streets are still makeshift dumps, but there isn't much to complain about on main roads. We're doing a better job - it's just a matter of civic pride.

. Naked truth. We need more trees planted to rehabilitate bare land. A century ago, Phuket was thick jungles, running streams and heavily wooded flatlands. Phuket has no water lens, so we need to reclaim as much watershed as possible. With crowded development, quality off-island incentive planners now offer environmental rehabilitation projects for their Phuket activities. That's great, but also sad. Perhaps a tree-planting festival would fit the bill.

. Twofer. Two-cycle engines are still the top choice for local seamen. Astounding, since four-cycle engines would save money. Just Google "speedboat tours" and ask yourself why Phuket is the world leader in this devastating activity.

. Flotsam jettisoned. There are now fewer plastic bags floating down from James Bond Island, so perhaps the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) actually reads this column. If so, thank you.

Sea canoe operators no longer throw their day's rubbish into the bay. However, the new small plastic drinking cups being used may be virtually invisible in the water, but they still block a dolphin's throat same as the bigger bottles.

Styrofoam from shrimp farms and ice coolers remains an eyesore in famous Phang Nga Bay, and it simply is not biodegradable.

. Man's best friends. We now take street dogs to the pound, but how many people adopt a dog? Rehabilitated street dogs are loving animals with good health and colorful coats.

However, every day I'm saddened by the white belly sea eagle displayed in a front yard for sale. The police drive by it every day, but do nothing.

. Whale of a time. Dunderheads in Japan, Iceland and Norway refuse to accept whales as anything but raw meat. When will they stop whaling? Australia and New Zealand activists boycott Japanese goods, but I don't advocate boycotting smaller Iceland and Norway. It makes more sense to visit and patronize anti-whaling establishments, giving these governments the finger wave directly from their own soil.

. Catchall. The use of drift nets and longlines throughout East Asia is destroying our seas in long swaths of death and destruction. If we don't stop these irresponsible "Fisheries Research" practices the world's pelagic fisheries will soon disappear.

. Bamboozled. Why do we build with concrete? Concrete is a heat sink demanding air conditioning. A modern, wooden Thai-style house does use electricity, but is fan-cooled and draws water from a well.

Then there are homes made from properly-cured bamboo that last at least 40 years, even longer with silicon solar panels and solar hot water heaters forming the roof.

. It's a gas. A friend recently nailed me for the emissions of my wife's 4X4 idling while I ran into the bakery. I agree. I hate RV's but she bought it for protection in Phuket's crazy traffic. But there's no excuse for leaving any engine running while shopping - or picking up punters. Let's make the very Thai practice "socially undesirable".

. Planned action. Thai travel agents complain, development has gone too far. Like so many destinations, we overdevelop without thinking. Responsible master planning is the answer. Except for North Phuket, that means full-stop on development around the Gulf of Phuket.

Tourists don't come to see beautiful islands tainted by over-development. They move on to another of the world's 200 tropical destinations. We can't force their vacation decisions, but we can offer good planning balancing economics and natural beauty.

. The Battle For Koh Yao. The hotel plots are sold but all is not lost if Koh Yao is developed thoughtfully. But will you bet money on responsible, low impact development?

Koyao Island Resort can't be seen from the sea, blends with the local culture and doesn't use aircon, but the mainstream resorts built and under construction are typical mainstream on an island that isn't. The first mainstream hotel mishandled local relations in almost every way possible, setting a sad stage for future development. The second resort has typically large infrastructure.

Let's hope future developers do a better job of blending with the island's sleepy culture and beautiful topography.

What comes next? With thoughtful creativity, we can balance development with economic benefit. But with we must put more effort into realistic planning driven by reality, not corruption and short-term thinking.

Time is getting short. Phuket is still a beautiful place - let's keep it that way.

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