KAO TAO, Thailand -- While Koh Samui is well-paved and packed with five-star resorts, and Koh Phangan turns into an international frat party during its full-moon festivities, neighboring Koh Tao is still hanging on to its place slightly off the map – but barely.
In the last decade, word has gotten out that Koh Tao is “the” place to go scuba diving in Thailand. This has been a boon for dive operators, but it also threatens the unspoiled waters that make the island so attractive, and it is the divers who are leading a movement to regulate development on Koh Tao.
The island now issues more open water diving certificates through the Professional Association of Diving Instructors than any other place in the Asia Pacific after Cairns, Australia, home to the Great Barrier Reef. And last year, 722 people from 40 countries literally took the plunge off Koh Tao to help set a world record for the “most people diving simultaneously” during the island’s second “underwater world festival.” More than 10,000 people showed up for the event, on an island that usually only holds several thousand.
Nongluck Chopunkul is a co-owner of Phoenix Divers and AC Resort, one of the bigger outfits on the island’s main drag, Sairee Beach. She has lived on Koh Tao for 20 years, and says that, while her business has gotten much stronger, she misses the good old days.
“In my mind, this buildup has been really fast and cannot stop – there’s too much diving already,” she says. “Before the water was clearer, there were more fish and the coral was more beautiful.”
Even though she benefits financially from the diving boom, Nongluck and other divers are now a leading force in trying to reign in the development.
To that end, some key players on the island started the Koh Tao Dive Operators Club in 2003. Now, the club has a membership of over 30 diving-related businesses, most of them Thai-owned, and it tries to tackle issues such as building a wastewater treatment plant and instituting some form of garbage control, as well as setting protocols for operating in an environmentally responsible way.
The group meets once a month and votes on issues of concern, although it has no power to enforce anything. Still, the members have met with government officials, and hope that some of their wishes for the island will become realities.
Gili Back, the operations manager for the club, settled on Koh Tao under the same circumstances as many foreigners: she came three years ago for a couple of weeks to go diving and never left. Now she has found herself on the front lines of the struggle to keep the island from being overrun.
“These rules and regulations that we are trying to establish will be beneficial to the island in the long term,” she says. “These shops know that the diving area has to remain beautiful if they are going to stay in business. So we deal with environmental issues and try to encourage sustainability.”
Much of the coral around the island, the major draw for divers, is already damaged. In 1998, the sea temperature rose above 30.1 degrees Celsius, causing algae to separate from the coral and creating a “coral bleaching” effect.
The bleaching, combined with runoff from the island and pollution, can kill the coral. Fortunately, if temperatures stay low and pollution is minimal, it can regenerate.
Nothing can be done about the increased temperatures. But increased tourism and the inevitable footprint it leaves could bring down what made the island what it is: diving.
But Sutep Mumi, the manager of Ban’s Diving Resort, which trains more divers than any other business on the island, says that Koh Tao is still maintaining its natural charm.
“Seven years ago, I thought the peace and quiet of the island wouldn’t last long,” he recalls. “Tourism was increasing every year, the building was happening at a ridiculous pace. But even after the tsunami, when many more people came here, things are still okay. We’ll see what happens next year, though.”
And besides the diving opportunities, tourists are drawn by the island’s remoteness. It takes a nearly two-hour boat ride to get there. Power outages occur and hot water isn’t a given – even in rooms that cost 1,000 baht a night. Of course, that’s just what many people are looking for.
Ashby Smith, who came from San Francisco last year, says she and her husband traveled to the eastern side of Koh Tao to find solitude.
“We didn’t want to have interactions with people or see any lights at night, and it was just perfect,” she says.
But for all of the talk of keeping things quiet and under control, this February, Koh Tao divers will try to outdo themselves with another record attempt: this time, with at least 800 people from around the world diving simultaneously.
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