Paradise Regained

Posted By: Sir Isaac Newton

Paradise Regained - 07/21/05 07:07 PM

Sorry if this is overkill, just interesting as I see things develop here on AC:

Paradise Regained?
by Joe Cummings

In ravaging Thailand's Ko Phi Phi Don, December's tsunami may have saved the island from ruin. Joe Cummings reports
[Linked Image]

Long before the December 26 tsunami devastated Ko Phi Phi Don, the largest island in the Phi Phi archipelago and one of Thailand's most popular tourist destinations, many say it was already close to ruin. Unplanned and rampant development had led to a litany of environmental problems—overcrowded ports and roads, litter-strewn beaches, and turquoise seas awash in carelessly discarded bottles and cans. In fact, tourism officials and local environmentalists had become so concerned that in November 2004, a month before the tsunami leveled hundreds of shops and all but two of the island's dozens of accommodations, the Thai land-use planning agency scheduled its first public hearing to discuss rehabilitating the Phi Phi Islands.
I first traveled to Phi Phi Don in 1981 to research Lonely Planet's guidebook on Thailand. Ton Sai Beach, the impossibly beautiful crescent of sand on the south side of the island's skinny isthmus, was undeveloped except for a single set of simple thatch-roofed bungalows in which you could spend the night. It is the only place I can remember where that most common of beach bungalow names—Paradise—did not ring of hyperbole.

By the mid-1990s, both Ton Sai Beach and Lo Dalam Beach, its mirror image only a few hundred yards away on the north side of the isthmus, were so crammed with pizza parlors, dive shops, multistory concrete hotels, and souvenir stands that I was advising Lonely Planet readers to boycott the island. Toward the east end of Ton Sai Beach, near a huge pier built for the speed cruisers that carry tourists and supplies to and from the island, the shops were packed in so tightly that once you entered the grid of narrow lanes, you could see nothing of the sea, sand, or palms—only tile roofs, asphalt, and row upon row of commercial signage in English, Japanese, French, German, Italian, and Hebrew.

Since then, things had only gotten worse: Behind Ton Sai stood piles of rotting garbage. A hastily built reservoir near the center of the island—meant to supply tap water for the local residents—was badly maintained and quickly turned stagnant.

Just as alarming, beach accommodations, restaurants, and other businesses catering to tourists had expanded into areas of the island belonging to Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park. This 150-square-mile zone of protected land and sea extends from the coast of mainland Krabi Province, across vast Phang-nga Bay, and into the Phi Phi archipelago. Mu Ko Phi Phi's crown jewels are the parklands on Phi Phi Don, almost all of neighboring Phi Phi Leh, and the smaller islands of Bida Nok, Bida Nai, Yung, and Phai. Some local environmentalists believe that illegal development infringed on as much as 25 percent of the national parkland on Phi Phi Don.

In early January, 11 days after the tsunami hit the Andaman coast, I toured Phi Phi Don at the side of the Krabi provincial governor, Arnont Promnart, who was visiting the island to assess the damage and to determine how best to rebuild. Following the tsunami, the question on his and everyone else's mind is what shape the island should take this time around.

As we picked our way through the damage—wooden storefronts and bungalows reduced to raw timber, cement structures in rubble—Promnart explained that provincial planners are now surveying every inch of Phi Phi Don in order to come up with an entirely new development plan. The first priority will be to identify any land where buildings encroached on the park and to reclaim these areas for protection. "We won't be allowing businesses to creep onto parklands again, that's for sure," says Promnart.

Urban planners intend to rebuild and rezone the main tourist area between Ton Sai and Lo Dalam beaches to ensure that only low-density architecture will be used to replace the warren of buildings that once stood there. According to Promnart, this will not only help to preserve the dual-bay views but will make the beaches easier to evacuate in the event of future tropical storms or tsunamis. Another plan calls for the area, which was the hardest hit on the island, to become a public park and memorial.

Krabi Province officials are not alone in their desire to take advantage of the clean slate left by the giant waves that caused such immeasurable human tragedy. A Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says that the TAT is pushing to completely rehabilitate the three spots on Thailand's Andaman coast where the loss of lives was greatest—namely Khao Lak in Phang-nga Province, Patong Beach on Phuket, and Phi Phi Don. In each of these, the most severe property damage and the highest death toll occurred in areas where businesses were built close together and very near the beach. Government plans for the restoration of these areas call for the same approach: Lower the density of resorts and other tourist-related businesses, and keep properties well behind the high-water mark.

But some locals are skeptical of the plans, especially for Phi Phi Don: "It's going to be difficult for even the highest authorities to resist the threats and tempting offers of the business community as they regather on the island," says a travel agent who has worked in Krabi for two decades. The problem, she says, won't be the individual businesses but rather the landlords who rent hundreds of tiny lots to vendors offering everything from snack bars to foot massages. Told that they need to reduce the number of rentals and move them farther away from the island's main draw—the beach—the landlords will surely protest and might even try to sue or buy their way around the rules.

Only time will tell whether local, provincial, and national authorities can maintain the resolve not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Joe Cummings

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