Samet's beaches deemed safe, but tourists still wary

KOH SAMET - The beach at Ao Phrao on Koh Samet is different from four months ago, when it was hit by an oil spill. The seawater is blue again and the sand looks white as normal. The water quality has also been scientifically proved to be safe for aquatic activities. All in all it is ready for tourism - but tourists have not returned in the numbers the island used to see.

Though this month is high season, Samet's average occupancy rate is only 50-60 per cent, much lower than the usual level of more than 80 per cent. Hoteliers and beach masseuses said those who did visit asked, "Is the water safe for swimming? or "Is the seawater still contaminated with toxic chemicals from the oil spill?"

Even after being assured that everything is all right now, they are still not bold enough to jump into the sea.

Some operators project that the island will take a year to rebound, but others argue that a full recovery could take two or three years. One thing they agree on: They will look for ways to save their business operations during this hard time.

PTT Global Chemical (PTTGC), which was responsible for the oil leak in July, has made an attempt to restore the island's tourism trade. But its efforts appear not to have paid off as quickly as hoped.

One of its efforts was to allocate Bt40 million to the Association of Domestic Travel to help attract Thai tourists to the island on subsidised trips.

And to improve Samet's image, it has spent a lot of money on television commercials to deliver the message that the island is ready to welcome back tourists.

Dr Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a marine-science lecturer at Kasetsart University, said the island was safe for tourists now, and he believed one reason arrivals were still low was a failure to get people to understand the real situation. Clearly, they do not have enough information to decide to travel to the island. The TV commercials aired in recent months have not cleared away their doubts.

Thon has spent some time on Koh Samet recently at the invitation of PTTGC. He has conducted comprehensive research on the marine ecology system of this and nearby islands. Overall, he said the aquatic environment was on a recovery path. However, his research will require several years to reach a clear conclusion.

Meanwhile, the business sector has suffered from lost opportunity. From August to last month, business losses were estimated to total Bt30 million to Bt40 million, with Ao Phrao hit especially hard.

Le Vimarn Cottages & Spa, a luxury resort, saw its occupancy rate drop by half from 80-90 per cent before the spill. Its advance bookings are still low. Hardly any Thai tourists visit.

Meanwhile on Ao Tubtim beach, business operators there have also encountered hard times.

Some masseuses said they had received only Bt300 per day in compensation in August from PTTGC. Later, on some days they earned not a single baht - and they claimed they had not seen any PTTGC staff since August.

A hotel owner who declined to be named said Koh Samet was still in a coma. In the three months after the crisis, his resort, including food and drink sales from his restaurant, lost more than Bt10 million. What PTTGC paid to him was only 60-70 per cent of what he could have earned based on previous income, he claimed.

"After the crisis, some weekends there were only 15 rooms occupied out of the total of 90 rooms," he said. "PTTGC has never launched any serious action to help us. It is only boosting its own image."

All the operators urged PTTGC to draw up a long-term solution to rebuild the island's image sincerely and consistently so their businesses could survive.

They said Samet's tourism in the past was pretty dynamic, with a stable number of visitors throughout the year.