Tourists visiting Koh Samed over the years could have been forgiven for not understanding why they were being asked to pay National Park fees to enter the holiday island.
For all intents and purposes it looked as commercial and as exploited as most other beachside places in Thailand. Despite its natural beauty it has been full of song thaews, motorbikes, beach vendors and businesses of every kind for the best part of four decades.
Not to mention the ubiquitous speedboats and jetski hauled banana boats in its pleasant Gulf of Thailand waters. Sure, there were no very tall buildings but there were an ever increasing number of resorts and other businesses set up there that meant it looked anything but a national park.
Parts of it looked more like Pattaya.
I first went there in 1982 and the signs were already obvious that the island was under the control of a shady mafia. I stayed on Candlelight Beach that had just one small operator. It was idyllic and I got to know the lady who ran the six bungalows and the restaurant.
She told me coolly one day that her husband had been shot dead in Rayong in a dispute about their beachfront operation. She remained alone for many years in a low key operation before being bought out by people who built bungalows all along the beach and up the hillside.
Slowly but surely the island was taken over and developed. A national park fee was introduced but it has emerged this week that most of that went into the hands of influential figures who have robbed hundreds of millions from the state and from the island in protection rackets.
Now – if the authorities are to believed – all that is set to change as the state, and principally the National Park Authority attempt to reclaim the island and return it to its former glory of some forty years ago when camping was the norm and entertainment was a sing-a-long with a guitar at night.
In a big development the head of the Samed National Park has been removed along with 80 staff most of whom were allegedly part of the problem.
The head of the national parks of Thailand who was on the island this week has said that speedboats, jetskis pulling banana boats and motorbikes for rent will all be banned. Beach umbrellas and chairs have been largely removed already. Jetties run illegally will be shut permanently leaving only two embarkation points to make it easier to control.
And the word is that a huge number of businesses on 10 kilometers of prime beachfront land will be torn down amid promises of prosecution.
Nathaphon Ratanaphan of the national parks central office was quoted this week as saying that many operators had been in touch with him to claim they know someone of influence and they should be allowed to operate. He said “no can do” but Nathaphon and his staff will need a steely resolve.
Much is at stake as the businesses on the island generate hundreds of millions of baht. But the state has clearly been robbed blind by both its own corrupt officials as well as the “dark forces” exploiting the island. In just park fees alone the losses are staggering – it was reported that revenue in October this year was four times in the same month last year after a change in officialdom. That represented several million baht lost in a low season month.
The potential gains for the state from December to February would be huge.
As with all things in Thailand it remains to be seen if the officials have the necessary authority to follow through on their promises but one senses that the park authority have the backing of those much higher up in the government.
If Samed can be reclaimed from those that would exploit its natural beauty a great precedent could be made for many other beaches and natural attractions in the kingdom where commercialism and corruption has severely damage the environment.
A new order could be just around the corner for many ,largely ruined tourist sites. And while some of the “creature comforts” of a place like Samed may disappear, the benefits for tourism in the long run may be much greater.
The question is the resolve of the authorities and, inevitably, the long term rooting out of corruption.
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