Plans to turn one of Phuket’s few mangrove forests into a haven for luxury yachts and cruises causes protests.

PHUKET, THAILAND – A marina developer has plans to turn one of Phuket’s few remaining mangrove forests into a new gateway for luxury yachts and cruises post the Covid-19 pandemic period.

In Ao Kung, a quiet bay in the northern part of bustling Phuket island, Sujirtra Thothip stood in her long-tail fishing boat with her son. She looked down at the artificial reefs that she left under the water months ago in a bid to increase her family’s catch of fish.

A baby octopus squirmed out of one of the artificial reefs made from glass bottles filled with concrete as she picked it up from the water. Tiny fishes swam around.

The artificial reefs were part of her community’s initiative to restore the coral in Ao Kung’s bay – once known for hosting 1,000-square-meter colonies of Acropora pulchra, a species of coral found in shallow water.

The colonies were mostly swept away in late 2019, which marine ecologists linked to irregular low tides likely caused by the Indian Ocean Dipole event. This happened around the same time that the Covid-19 pandemic started to take its toll on Thailand’s tourism industry.

Phuket fisherman
A fisherman Sujitra Thothip and her son take out a small octopus from an artificial coral they had planted in Ao Kung north of Phuket Island. PHOTO: Wanpen Pajai

Phuket was one of Thailand’s most affected by the pandemic province as its economy largely depended on international tourism.

Although many workers lost their jobs as international travel halted, Ao Kung residents still had the bay to depend on – the fisheries provided them with an income and a secure food source. The intact mangrove forests and coral reefs provided a habitat for marine life.

“My son worked in the tourism industry before the pandemic. Now he’s been back to the bay and helped me with fishing,” said Sujitra while driving the long-tail boat through a mangrove forest back to her village.

Since Phuket fully reopened in July, the serenity of the bay has been replaced by fears and concerns.

A month after the reopening, the Marine Department announced a plan to build luxury marinas in six provinces along the Andaman coast in hopes to boost tourism in the post-pandemic period. Phuket is one of the targeted provinces.

The focus is now on Ao Kung, where a private company proposed a marina project a few years ago. However, the project never went ahead due to local protests and the ongoing debate over the biodiversity value of the bay.

A regional marina hub

In 2016, Thailand’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), a post-coup temporary government body, came up with a plan to push Thailand to become the marina hub of Southeast Asia. Within this plan, the Marine Department was tasked with finding suitable locations.

Phuket has long been the leading destination for boat owners in Thailand. More than 1,500 yachts and cruisers visited Phuket annually before the Covid-19 pandemic, making it an attractive location to build marinas.

Ao Kung has become tangled up in this marina hub ambition as it is one of the few places in Phuket not yet disturbed by tourism.

The bay is currently unpopular among tourists. Unlike the beaches along the Island’s west side, famous for their delicate sand and turquoise water, the sand and water at Ao Kung are muddy – typical of a mangrove forest.

The relatively calm atmosphere at Ao Kung has helped to preserve the habitat of various marine animals and provide food for the local islanders.

Back in 2018, a local real estate developer revealed a plan to develop a piece of land in the bay for a marina and sports complex and submitted the plan for an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study with Thai authorities.

But the developer soon retracted the EIA due to opposition from local conservation groups, who pointed out the flaws in the assessment, which they said had insufficient consideration for the project’s potential impact on the coral reefs and marine animals’ habitats.  

In 2019, the development re-emerged in a different package – as two separate projects carried out by different entities.

One was a marina and sports complex proposed by a landowner, who submitted a new EIA, which claimed his project would be less likely to destroy mangrove forests and coral reefs.

Another plan was a 1.2-kilometer-long and two-meter-deep water channel dredging project proposed by the Marine Department, which claimed it was necessary for the transportation of local boats.

The authorities also claimed there was an existing water channel in the area, allowing it to dredge the seabed without a further environmental assessment.

The Marine Department held a public hearing on February 9, which was joined by 180 Ao Kung residents.

At the hearing, many locals supported the project. One of those was fisherman Somchai Sinprai, who said “it would be easier for big boats to travel there if there was a deeper water channel.”

Others saw the marina project as promising for the local economy as it would likely provide jobs and bring tourists to their area.

Charan Damnoenpol, the Marine Department’s officer in charge of developments in the Ao Kung area, stated that the selection of the dredging method would have the least impact on the mangrove forests.

Conservation efforts

Still, there are many locals who disagree with both the marina and water channel dredging projects.

Members of the Ban Ao Kung Mangrove Forest Conservation Group have raised concerns about the projects’ impact on the ecosystem, including the colonies of Acropora pulchra that were beginning to recover from the 2019 Indian Ocean Dipole event.

The group believes that the dredging project will support the marina project by providing an exit to the sea without proper EIA measures.

Phuket coral
During low tide, colonies of Acropora pulchra appear in Ao Kung bay north of touristic Phuket Island. The colonies were mostly swept away in the Indian Ocean Dipole event in 2019, and have begun to recover recently due to local conservation efforts. This picture was shot on June 16, 2022. PHOTO: Pichet Pandam

Pichet Pandam, an advisor to the conservation group, said the bay’s health had improved significantly in recent years because of the community’s efforts to restore the mangrove and coral reefs.

Established more than a decade ago, his group has initiated some conservation projects in collaboration with experts. Their activities include replanting mangroves, installing artificial reefs and studying fauna species in the bay.  

The Phuket Marine Biological Center assessed the health of coral reefs in Ao Kung Bay in 2022 and gave them a “healthy” status, thanks to local conservation efforts. The reefs were listed as “severely damaged” in 2003.

The marina project’s designated location is close to the area where the group has dedicated its efforts to restore the ecosystem. They fear their hard-won efforts will go to waste. 

Saisanit Pongsuwan, a professor at the Science and Environment Faculty at Phuket Rajabhat University, noted that the geographical location of Ao Kung was unique and therefore needed to be carefully considered.

The bay is part of the bigger marine ecosystem of the world-famous Phang Nga Bay, a protected Ramsar Site which featured in the 1974 James Bond movie The Man With The Golden Gun as well as the 1997 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies.

It’s part of more than 160-square-kilometers of mangrove forests of Phang Nga Bay that provide nurseries to marine life. Its water offers habitats and feeds marine creatures that move between these two bays.  

This means any environmental change at Ao Kung could affect the whole food chain beyond the bay, she said.

Phuket mangrove
During weekends, some youths join the Ao Kung Conservation group to plant mangrove trees. PHOTO: Wanpen Pajai

Alternative industries

“We must rethink Phuket’s development in a more sustainable manner. Learning from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, diversity [of income sources] is not just desirable, but critical,” said Saisanit.

“It’s undeniable that [Phuket locals] have been able to weather through the pandemic because of the resources we have around the island. It was the last foundation we had to fall back on.”

More than 90% of Phuket households are employed in the tourism industry, which welcomed more than 10 million visitors per annum in pre-pandemic years.

She further pointed out that there’s a need to develop alternative industries and sustainable tourism that give fair shares to local people – instead of focusing on intense tourism that is vulnerable to shocks. 

Previously, there were events such as the 2004 tsunami that rocked the island’s tourism industry and severely damaged the local economy.

A fisherman pulls a net out of the water in Ao Kung Bay. PHOTO: Wanpen Pajai

Though tourism plays a big part in the island’s economic development, it simultaneously marginalizes people in other industries, including fishing and agriculture, whose voices are often ignored in development decisions.

Fisherwoman Sujitra is one of those.

While driving a long-tail boat home, she looked around the bay and compared it with a “rice bowl” that ensured the food security of her family members.

“The bay is all we have. It’s our life,” she said, adding that the bay is just a profit-making machine for the developers.

“All I see is a bountiful bay that feeds us. I fear that others will take it away.” 

This story was supported by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

About the writer

Wanpen Pajai

Wanpen Pajai is a Thai journalist reporting on economic development and the environment in Southeast Asia.