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Paradise not lost along Thai coast

By Martin Young

HUA HIN - Since the December 26 tsunami devastated the coastlines of a dozen Asian countries, the tourism industry in Thailand has been in first gear, slowly and painfully struggling its way up a hill that was created by the one of the world's largest natural disasters.

Hundred's of thousands of people have cancelled their holidays or redirected their trips to alternative and, in their minds, safer destinations. What was once a thriving hub of holiday activity on the Andaman Sea side of Thailand has turned into a low seaon, with many businesses still closed or forced to call it quits.

According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) 120,000 jobs have been lost in Thailand in the tourism sector, and an estimate by the Tourism Authority of Thailand suggests the affected provinces stand to lose more than US$1 billion in tourism revenue, or 5 million tourists, in the first quarter of this year. The environmental implications of the disaster are another story: they will continue to have an affect on the area for many years.

Damaged coral reefs, for example, will take hundreds of years to re-grow. Consequently, the Thai government as well as aid agencies have closed many dive sites for reef regeneration programs (see Coral reef rescue underway in Thailand , April 8).

Working closely with the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, the UNDP has helped initiate and finance a reef clean-up program to ensure the conservation of coral reef resources important to both the local tourism and fisheries sectors. As of April 22, 95% of targeted reefs littered by debris had been cleaned. The actual damage to fragile, hard coral types, such as Plate and Staghorn corals, will take many years to recover, and recent diving expeditions to local sites off the coast of Krabi have revealed extensive damage to some areas.

For the beach-lover, however, there are countless undiscovered places within Thailand that are equal to those offering the paradise of the Andaman. And for the scuba diver, there are myriad dive sites that still remain relatively untouched by tourism and certainly unaffected by the tsunami. Along the Gulf of Thailand, only  300 kilometers north of the Andaman resort island Phuket, one can find empty beaches and pristine coral reefs, many of which are unknown to locals, never mind international tourists. The gulf, which lies to Thailand's east, was unaffected by the tsunami.

The sleepy town of Bangsapan, four hours south of Bangkok, has a little gem off its coast called Koh Talu. The island is popular with local snorkelers but has never really taken off as a dive spot. The local dive operators who, despite Thai New Year celebrations, managed to get us on a dive trip out to the island, were extremely friendly and helpful. For a location this close to the coast, the marine life and bio-diversity beneath the water's surface were impressive. Hard and soft coral formations are pristine, with damsel fish, fusiliers and butterfly fish all in abundance.

Further south is Chumphon, the capital of Chumphon province, which is only on the tourist trail as a stop-off to the popular diving Mecca of Koh Tao, or Turtle Island. Vastly overlooked as a dive destination itself, Chumphon has some exquisite sub-surface action for divers of all abilities. The islands are an hour off the coast and are part of a Marine National Park protected under Thai law.

The setting in Chumphon couldn't be anywhere nearer to the idyllic image of paradise that most people have locked away in their minds: an empty, long, white sandy beach, water so clear it looks drinkable and a sky that would put most postcards to shame. The dive vessel we were to board arrived in the still, cerulean waters off Koh Ngam Yai mid-morning. And it wasn't long before a large contingent of pale-looking Thais from the big city - fully clothed, wearing life vests, masks and snorkels - gingerly entered the crystal-clear water for their snorkeling experience.

For divers, the visibility underwater was equally impressive, up to 20 meters, which is comparable to the Andaman on any good day. Huge schools of fusiliers engulfed us and the other divers as we descended to the sandy bottom 22 meters below. The rocky slopes surrounding us were encrusted in hard and soft corals that turned the water into a kaleidoscope of colors. Sea anemones with their resident anemonefish fed in the current and scorpionfish lay cunningly camouflaged on the coral, their colors changing to mimic their surroundings.

Closer inspection revealed miniscule pipefish, tiny anemone shrimps, nudibranchs, and tube worms of all colors; a macro  photographers dream. A large sleeping turtle was found in one of the rock crevices and many cowries were spotted (these are a rare sight as their striking shells are usually collected by local skin divers to sell in tourist shops). Blue-spotted stingrays could be seen settling into the sandy bottom and shoals of jacks and barracuda lurked in the depths, always on the lookout for their next meal.

Long fishing nets draped across the coral reef were the only thing that detracted from the diving off Chumphon - man-made destruction always looks worse than natural. The area is a Marine National Park, and if the government and parks authority put as much effort into enforcing the no fishing laws as they do collecting inflated entrance fees from foreigners, this small archipelago would likely retain its natural marine ecosystem and abundance of life for years to come.

Diving off other islands in the area was equally impressive, and the natural surroundings are truly a picture-perfect paradise. These untouched, off-the-beaten-track locations are all out there to be discovered. They may not be in glossy travel brochures or on the walls of travel shops, but that at the moment is part of their attraction.

Today, the cancellation of holidays is causing the most damage to businesses and the Thai tourism industry in post-tsunami resort destinations. The Andaman coast has almost been fully restored to its former beauty, but still tourists are staying away. It will take time to heal, but for the traveler who wishes to help, the best way to do so is by not canceling or re-directing one's vacation elsewhere. There is no end to the list of holiday locations in Thailand - and for those willing to take the plunge, some may even find that idyllic hideaway of which they have always dreamed.