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Thai Business Swamped by Greed, Violence

Asia: Kayaking company received awards for its high environmental standards. But the caves John Gray introduced to visitors are under siege, and he is the target of death threats.

October 24, 1999|DENIS D. GRAY | ASSOCIATED PRESS

PHANG-NGA BAY, Thailand — It was meant to be a model of eco-tourism for Asia: reverential kayak journeys by a limited number of people into limestone sea caves, the lost worlds of this spectacular bay.

And it worked. The venture picked up five international awards and numerous accolades.

But today, as many as 1,000 kayakers enter the caves each day. Boats jam the narrow passages, tourists snap off stalactites for souvenirs, and their bellowing scares away gibbons, hornbills and other wildlife.

The man who started it all, John Gray, says he's not only deeply disillusioned, but has become the target of death threats. One of his Thai associates was shot and severely wounded.

"It was fantasy-land," Gray says of what he once believed could be achieved: Blend local people, uncompromising standards and sound management and you'll not only have a business that's sustainable for nature, but make money as well.

What Gray, 54, didn't fully factor in was the local way of doing things, and perhaps the commercialization pitfalls of eco-tourism everywhere.

The athletic, gray-bearded American--nicknamed the "Caveman"--became the victim of his own success.

Gray's Sea Canoe Thailand has spawned 19 competitors, some showing little respect for the caves, while armed collectors of highly prized edible birds' nests have muscled in on the tourist operators.

An environmental activist in Hawaii, Gray came to the island of Phuket in southern Thailand in 1989 to "plant a seed of environmentalism in Asia" by setting up a model eco-tourism company.

Phuket was by then already on the international tourism map. Its once-pristine beaches were being crammed with hotels, its fringing coral gardens degraded by divers and boat operators.

But nearby Phang-Nga Bay remained largely untouched. Gray was one of the first to find his way through concealed tunnels into a primeval seascape--lagoons within soaring limestone islands probably formed when the roofs of caves collapsed millennims ago.

From the start, Gray kept to a self-imposed limit of no more than 50 daily visitors and has refused to lower his high-end price of 2,950 baht ($80) per trip despite cut-rate competitors.

Believing the "key to eco-tourism is local opportunity," he staffed his business with the offspring of the area's fishermen and farmers. They get top pay and are rigorously trained. The company, now owned by Thai partners, even picks up the tab for foreign-language lessons.

Before each journey into the caves the guides brief customers: no smoking, drinking, talking above a whisper or collecting even pebbles.

Such an approach won Sea Canoe a slew of awards, including one from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and plaudits from a Thai government eager to show it was promoting "green" tourism.

Even the man Gray perceives as his archrival is laudatory.

"He was so angry at my company. He calls us all mafia. But I still respect him. His company is still the best. He is my teacher," says Thiti Mokapun, head of Sea Cave Canoe, the first competitor to spring up.

Thiti, a Bangkok lawyer, says he also cares for Phuket's environment, enforces the same rules as Sea Canoe and refuses to accept tourists from Taiwan, mainland China and Korea, widely said to be the rowdiest.

But Gray brands Thiti and the other competitors as money-grubbing "copycats."

And Gray took a no-compromise line when the bird's nest concessionaires demanded the kayaking companies pay 100 baht ($2.75) a visitor.

The collectors, whose harvest ends up as expensive Chinese soup, argued that the paddlers were eating into their income by disturbing the birds. The companies retorted that the collectors had no right to charge fees since the caves were in within a national park.

"We wanted to fight with John too," Thiti said. "We did not want to pay. But we realized that in Thailand there are often forces more powerful than the government. We decided to pay."

Gray refused.

It is widely believed in Phuket that was behind the October shooting of Sea Canoe's operations manager, Panwong Hirunchai, and death threats against Gray. No one has been arrested.

"I am sometimes criticized for not fitting in with the Thai way, for going against the grain. But that's exactly why I came here," Gray says. And why he may leave.

Barred from the caves, Sea Canoe finally gave in recently and paid what Gray says is extortion to the nest collectors.

Thiti says there is some hope on the horizon for a less damaging approach to the sea caves. An association of the operators has set a quota of 300 boats a day into the caves and is trying to police improper behavior.

He has also asked Thailand's government to pull the nest collectors out of the park when their concession expires in 2001.

But Gray says he's largely turning his back on Thailand, planning to spend more time at his other ventures in Vietnam, the Philippines and especially Fiji, where he hopes that government can exercise more controls on tourism.

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