Are we loving some coral reefs to death? Sacrificing them to unsustainable tourism so others can exist with less human impacts? Unfortunately, that seems to be the case in some major tourist destinations around the world.
Recently, I visited Phi Phi Island in Phuket, Thailand — one of the most famous tourist destinations in the world. I was excited to go there, since it would be my first time snorkeling in the Andaman Sea. I should have known better. What I saw horrified me.
I’ve been fortunate enough to snorkel or dive on many reefs of the world — but with the possible exception of Egypt, I’ve never seen such shocking overuse of reefs. My friend and I went snorkeling at one of the iconic snorkeling sites, and there were so many boats racing over the reefs at high speed that it was too dangerous for both of us to look down at once! So we had to take turns — one person watching for crazy boat drivers while the other one looked at the reef!
We were also surrounded by hoards of tourists snorkeling over the reef – many of whom could not swim and were standing on the coral. For someone who’s committed to coral reef conservation, it was a nightmare.
Underneath all of that pandemonium lay one of the saddest looking coral reefs I’ve ever seen. The water quality was terrible, probably due to the boat traffic and tourists doing goodness knows what in the water. So most of the coral was already dead, sick or dying.
Some people argue that sacrificing some reefs to unsustainable tourism can protect the rest. While that may be so, don’t all reefs deserve some protection? Why can’t the number and activities of boats and people be managed sustainably even on heavily used reefs?
But maybe I’m just spoiled. As my friend pointed out, we were probably the only people in the water that day who realized that there was a problem and didn’t enjoy it. I wonder if the thousands of other tourists in the water that day would have enjoyed it so much if they’d realized that they were loving the reef to death?
(Image 1: The seemingly endless stream of high speed boats racing over the reef at Phi Phi Island, Thailand. Credit: Alison Green/TNC. Image 2: Just a fraction of the hundreds of boats and thousands of tourists on the reef at Monkey Beach, Phi Phi Island each day. Credit: Patrick Christie.)