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Thailand Jewel May Become Playground for Rich

Environment: The government's plans for its second-largest island cause fears of more unbridled, profit-first development.


KOH CHANG, Thailand — It's almost like a military operation. First come the reconnaissance teams: the backpackers. They're followed by the light infantry: the local tourist operators.

Then the last wave storms ashore: the Thai and international resort developers.

Just like that, one tropical island after another in Thai waters has been overrun in the onslaught of the tourism industry. Phuket, Samui, Phi Phi, Samet -- all these once-idyllic islands have suffered through unbridled, profit-first development.

Now Thailand's cash-starved government has its eye on the last large piece of paradise, aiming to transform Koh Chang island into a theme park for rich foreigners.

"The island would generate huge revenue for the country if it were fully developed," said Plodprasop Suraswadi, who heads a special body to oversee this development.

And this time around, the government promises, Koh Chang will be done right. Set in the Gulf of Thailand 170 miles southeast of Bangkok, Koh Chang is indeed a jewel. A national park covers about 75% of the island, helping preserve a rich evergreen forest that clothes hillsides rising from a narrow coastal strip. Beaches, waterfalls, coral gardens and bird life abound.

A master plan has not yet been completed, but officials are talking about hotels for guests willing to pay $1,000 a night. Smaller islands in the Koh Chang archipelago would be set aside for golf, water sports, jungle safaris and a casino.

Plodprasop says proper infrastructure and zoning, strict regulations on building and transport -- an electric train is being held out as a possibility -- and a focus on ecotourism will be given high priority. An environmental impact assessment is promised.

"However, I cannot guarantee that Koh Chang will not end up like Phuket, which has been extensively damaged by tourism," he added.

No matter how good the government's intention, Thailand's freewheeling economic forces are already ahead of the planners.

A feeding frenzy erupted as soon as Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced his vision for Koh Chang in October. As prices soared, speculators and developers scooped up land held by villagers for generations. Racing to beat new regulations going into effect in coming months, developers are engaged in soon-to-be forbidden, already illegal or simply inappropriate activities.

A lagoon is being dredged, mangrove swamps cut down, national parkland violated. One resort dumps untreated sewage into the sea. Cookie-cutter bungalows are being hastily marshaled on beaches and once-forested slopes.

A parliamentary committee is investigating alleged encroachment on public land by the Aiyapura Resort, the island's most luxurious, as well as obstruction of its probe by the prime minister's deputy secretary-general, police Lt. Gen. Preecha Suwannarat. Preecha has close ties to the hotel.

"It's probably wishful thinking that Koh Chang will be different. I see a repetition of Phuket in many ways, but it's going to move faster here," said Chayant Pholpoke, an environmentalist who monitors tourism in Thailand.

High-rises have gone up on Phuket's beaches despite regulations that say buildings can be "no higher than the tops of coconut trees."

On other resort islands, the story is much the same.

Tourists complain about garbage and water pollution on Samui's once-pristine beaches, and authorities fear water shortages due to unplanned growth. Samet and Phi Phi, both national parks, have dense construction, bars and pizza parlors through legal loopholes or outright violations of park laws.

The campaign to develop remote untouched islands in the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand continues.

Koh Chang, Thailand's second-largest island, was "discovered" by foreign backpackers in the 1980s. Access then was by fishing boat. There was no electricity, just strips of dirt road and basic bungalows put up by friendly islanders.

This year, the government Tourism Authority of Thailand expects 400,000 visitors, and by the time Koh Chang becomes a special administration zone Oct. 1, a broad, paved road should circle the island. Internet cafes now flourish.

Along with entrepreneurs, migrants from all over Thailand are flocking in to set up stalls or work in the tourism business. They could soon outnumber the island's native population of 6,000.

"The development is too fast. The people here are just farmers and fishermen. They have no business experience. They don't know how to cope with the smart outsiders," said Wittaya Noppawan, son of a fisherman who runs a small, simple bungalow resort.

But it is unlikely that brakes will be applied. Tourism is the shining star in a bleak economy still trying to rebound from the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Government policy is to go all out for tourist revenue.

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