A refurnished warning sign against wildlife feeding at Khao Yai.

Tourism in parks goes “New Normal”

Capping tides of tourists is turning spoiling tourism in deteriorating parks into the new high of sustainability, and challenges.

A baby monkey lay still on the road, apparently suffering severely from a hit by a speeding car. Its mother went to grasp it and drag it to the roadside, staring. Before veterinarians managed to reach her, she took her baby in her arms and ran away into the forest, leaving this scene of tragic death behind as a stark reminder how wild animals can be under human threat as national parks nationwide start to reopen.

The death of the baby monkey on the first day of the reopening of Khao Yai National Park last Wednesday has brought sadness among Thais as they have started to return to their normal lives, with national parks nationwide being allowed to reopen for recreational activities along with several other businesses.

Yet, the death has not swayed the decision to reopen the parks by the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry, as it has just introduced the concept of “carrying capacity” to deal with spoiling tourism in those natural compounds, seen as a critical juncture to parks and nature-based tourism management in the future.

For a few months, a number of rarely seen wild animals have become present in places which were once crowded by tourists following the restriction and lockdown measures to curb human activities to contain the spread of the Coronavirus.

National parks and other natural compounds had also been closed off, prompting a number of wild animals to reappear in those places as well.

This phenomenon then started a serious discussion on proper parks management after COVID-19 among conservationists. They later echoed the idea to introduce the concept of carrying capacity to help sustain nature in competition of spoiling tourism, before it was eventually taken by Monre under the directive of its minister, Varawut Silpa-archa.

“I don’t want to see what we have seen at Maya Bay,” said Mr. Varawut of the damage done to the world’s famed bay by crowds and the time-consuming rehabilitation he had learned from park officials.

Cyclists got their body temperature checked during the recent test-run of the new management system at Khao Yai.

Tourism driven GDP

For long, tourism has been one of the country’s key economic drivers. According to the Bank of Thailand’s Economic and Policy Department, the sector has grown consecutively during the past 10 years, with revenue contributing to the country’s GDP rising up from 14% in 2010 to 22.1%, as of 2018.

The most updated data from last year shows the sector saw the GDP contribution at almost 18%, derived from 39.7 million foreign visitors, who contributed Bt 1.93 trillion, plus 166 million Thai visitors, who contributed around Bt 1.08 trillion, according to the Ministry of Tourism and Sports.

These bits of information are in line with the now-defunct National Reform Council (NRC) which placed importance on the sector, addressing it as the first reform agenda. Its sub-economic committee, which prepared the reform agenda endorsed by the Cabinet in 2015, said tourism was one of the country’s key economic drivers, which had an average annual growth of 12 per cent from 2009 to 2014.

In terms of its tourism competitiveness, the country was ranked by the World Economic Forum at 35th out of 141 countries in 2015, and last year it was ranked at 31th, being the third in Asean, only after Singapore and Malaysia.

Despite its popularity, the experts from those agencies agree that the country’s tourism sector has been weakened by a number of factors, still, and among those are the fact that it still much relies on growth in the visitors’ number, rather than growth in their expenses, while environmental protection and sustainability remains critical, placing the country in the group with the poorest score, according to the BOT’s analyses.

In national parks, the country saw the number of visitors jump from 11 million to up to 18.7 million during 2013 and 2017. Foreign visitors, as the NRC’s sub-economic committee reviewed, accounted for almost one-third, or around 6 million.

The sub-committee noted that the country’s environmental protection and sustainability in regard to tourism was ever ranked at 116th  in 2015, and this was then down to 122nd in 2017.

Intensive environmental damage and threats to plant and wildlife species were addressed as crucial factors dragging down the country’s ranks, although the potential of its natural resources was ranked up high, at 16th in the same year of 2015, and the situation is not much different these days, according to the experts.

“The low rank in the category of environmental sustainability in regard to tourism reflected our environmental degradation problem following tourism, and this needed to be fixed urgently,” the sub-committee had noted in its study.

“Two critical concerns about our tourism are uneven distribution of resources and wealth, and unsustainable tourism resulted from too much reliance on certain groups of visitors and environmental degradation as a result of the activity.

“…Our tourism attractions have potentials but they are dashed by the degradation as a result of tourism, and this might send long-term impacts on the sector,” the BOT’s department has analysed.

Social distancing at Khao Yai.

Reform attempt

The NRC’s tourism reform proposal addressed the sector’s structural problems dogged by “the lack of a clear vision and strategy” for quality tourism, the disintegration of tourism infrastructure, the ineffectiveness of management at tourism attractions, particularly in natural compounds, and some other problems including tourist safety and a lack of logistics and facilities.

Its sub-committee noted that the ineffective management at tourism attractions was largely due to the lack of planning and regulation, and the failure in rehabilitation.

No less important was the failure to introduce the “carrying capacity” and regulations to impose curbs on tourism activities in national parks.

This resulted in the environment and natural resources being adversely degraded in several locations, the sub-committee pointed in its proposal.

The sub-committee, which cited the statistics from the Tourism Department, said since the late 2000s, up to 138 tourist attractions had been identified as heavily degraded and were in need of urgent rehabilitation, 50 of which were natural attractions. This is in line with the study by the Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation (DNP) a few years ago, which stated that at least 40 parks were under pressure from increasing visitors.

While some popular parks, like Doi Inthanon in the North, often saw visitors outnumbering its capacity (2,500 persons a day and 800 a night), particularly on holidays like the New Year, which ever saw the peak of up to 80,000 in some years. The sub-committee also noted that the number of visitors in marine parks could as well far exceed the number being reported back to the DNP.

The sub-committee had proposed that tourism be reformed in these natural compounds. Among its proposals were implementation of the carrying capacity concept to help regulate and control both the number and activities of visitors.

It was unfortunate that its proposals were not specifically addressed under the new round of reforms.

Visitors visited parks during the recent holiday with park rangers being deployed to keep them under the new rules.
Credit: DNP

Carrying capacity

“Carrying capacity” got little attention until the department realized the growing impacts from tourism especially in its marine parks around the early 2000s, according to the DNP’s study team.

The study in mid 2000s on some key national parks, including the popular Similan, showed that tourism activities far exceeded the carrying capacity of the places due to the high number of visitors.

DNP then decided to come up with a development plan to introduce carrying capacity to its national parks in an attempt to curb tourism impacts, initially at Similan, along with some six parks.

As defined by the department’s Innovation Institute, the carrying capacity of national parks is the maximum amount of tourism activities that a national park could sustain without causing unacceptable impacts. Or in other words, it means the maximum number of visitors that can be allowed in a compound.

To determine the carrying capacity for each place, factors like ecosystems, environmental quality, physical facilities, as well as psychological effects of visitors are taken into account and then turned into scores and figures. The lowest figure after the calculation would be picked as a limit used to set the carrying capacity, and this tends to be derived from calculation of the ecological carrying capacity.

Based on the study, the department came up with the CC figures for at least seven parks, including Similan, which stood at 1,600 people per day.

However, the study team noted that these figures did not lead to any further regulation and controls as wished by the department, partly due to factors including the lack of policy and serious enforcement.

Then the idea was pushed again in 2016, with Similan being picked a few years ago as a pilot project to introduce the carrying capacity concept to help regulate spoiling tourism in national parks.

This was hoped among the study team that it could help guide further necessary measures to regulate the spoiling tourism.

At Similan, for example, various measures were introduced to cap the number of visitors and regulate their activities prone to put risks on fragile ecosystems. These included advanced e-ticketing, GPS boat regulations, visitor quotas and deductions, and others.

Asst Professor Dachanee Emphandhu, from the Forestry Faculty at Kasetsart University, who led the study team reflected on the balance between utilization and conversation of these natural spots based on the parks’ principles during the introduction of the pilot Similan project.

She said: “Our parks have the primary goal of preserving natural resources and the (recreational) uses of it come second. That’s the principle in our parks management, and as such tourism in national parks and any developments in regard to it, should not in any way cause impacts to the fragile ecosystems.”

A cyclist tried checking in at Khao Yai recently.

Renewed effort

Following the strike of Covid-19, which has turned things around, including the health of the environment, Monre decided to bring back the carrying capacity concept to help regulate tourism in natural compounds under its supervision.

Monre’s minister Varawut seems determined about the idea, giving a loud and clear directive, which has resulted in the application of the concept nationwide for the first time in parks management history.

“Capping the number of visitors is the most critical in managing nature-based tourism. I understand that it would not be perfect, but we will not go back to where we were,” said Mr. Varawut of the so-called New Norm of nature-based tourism in the country’s parks.

Jongklai Worapongsathon, the DNP’s deputy director general who is responsible for the scheme, said it was the policy-making post, who wanted to see the “New Normal” of nature-based tourism in the country’s national parks and other natural compounds.

The only challenge then was how to translate the concept into applicable figures at once within the short timeframe set, said Mr. Jongklai.

Upon receiving the new policy in June, the DNP then assigned park chiefs nationwide to conduct initial surveys on possible figures of visitors that attractions in their responsible areas could take in total, based on available data and parks’ experiences.

The figures were then principally derived from estimations of the park teams. Mr. Jongklai acknowledged that this needed further studies guided by the past pilot projects to ensure that the implementation of carrying capacity is based on science.

So far, the DNP has thoroughly opened 64 parks, while another 63 parks have just been partially opened, and 28 more still remain closed off.

Mr. Jongklai checked on Khao Yai’s readiness before the reopening.

Mr. Jongklai conceded that the challenge would be how to keep the flows of visitors in those places under control. To be able to do so, the department has borrowed the application QueQ developed by the Ministry of Tourism and Sports to help regulate the flows via advanced registration.

Visitors are required to book their places in advance via the application QQ. They then have to check-in and check out at their destinations through the government’s Thai Chana application again. Park officials would then be the last gatekeeper, who will monitor and verify the flows of visitors and report these back to their centers.

Mr. Jongklai said with the new system introduced, park officials could learn about their visitors in advance and manage them better. The limited number help relieve their burden, and this, in a long term, would benefit the parks’ ecosystems as addressed in the prime principle of parks management, he said.

For Mr. Varawut, the success of the new concept and system introduced largely depends on the visitors themselves as well. Nature-based tourism needs knowledge and learning to help guide appropriate activities, he said.

“From now on, you may need to study the places and prepare yourselves in advance so you can appreciate the places and their values

“During the past few months, it’s clear to our sights how nature can improve and rehabilitate itself if not disturbed. None of wild animals were reported dead because of plastics, no sad stories like Marium (an orphaned dugong baby rescued last year but later died because of plastics). So, we desperately need cooperation from visitors in this tourism New Normal,” said Mr. Varawut, who has had to beg visitors to respect the rules to avoid such the tragic death of the baby monkey or he would have no choice but close off the places to save nature and wildlife.

Also read: Khao Yai on pause