coral_bleaching, ocean acidification, global warming, ocean temperatures rising, climate change(Blue Ocean Network – April 5, 2013) — Coral bleaching around Thai islands in the Andaman Sea has made a dent in tourism numbers. According to A-One Diving Co Ltd, the coral bleaching at key diving spots in the region has caused foreign divers to switch to St. Luke Island in Southern Myanmar instead.

Based in Ranong, A-One Diving Co Ltd arranges dive trips to various destinations in the Andaman Sea. Some destinations are in Thai waters while others are in Myanmar territory.

“Each trip to the island takes at least seven days. Despite that, the number of tourists to St Luke Island has now jumped by more than 30 per cent when compared with the previous year,” a tourism representative pointed out.

Ranong Tourism Association president Somchai Ouitekkeng said St Luke Island was becoming popular among Asians and Europeans. But, on the bright side, he believed Ranong could still reap benefits from the situation.

“We have the potential to become a gateway to hundreds of islands in southern Myanmar,” Somchai said. He said apart from St Luke, the Mergui Islands were also beautiful and had more sights on them.

Myanmar has yet to see a big boom in dive travel since entry to Myanmar is still subject to complicated procedures and strict regulations and only a handful of live-aboards access the area.  Even so, Myanmar suffers from a severe shortage of hotel rooms, and widespread overcharging, but the facilities offered aren’t worth those rates.

Last year, the number of tourists arriving in Myanmar reached a record one million. This compares to about 20 million people visiting Thailand. But there are only 27,000 hotel rooms in all of Myanmar, compared to more than 42,000 in Bangkok alone. Complaints from travellers about poor facilities are increasing, that threaten to damage the image and long-term standing of the country’s tourist industry, observers are warning.   The country needs tourism management and development controls so that it doesn’t face the problems Thailand now faces.

Some observers blame Thailand’s coral bleaching epidemic on tourism. Conservationist Niphon Phongsuwan, who has devoted his career to protecting the Andaman Sea, singled out visiting swimmers and snorkelers in an article in the local Nation newspaper. While surveying a damaged reef around Koh Hey, known as Coral Island, he said he witnessed a group of tourists destroy live coral as they swam and snorkeled. The use of non-biodegradable sunscreens, the collecting of live corals and souvenirs, and dynamite fishing have also been cited.

Coral bleaching is not a new phenomenon. Experts say up to 90 percent of coral in the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea has been bleached, resulting in state shutdowns of affected areas in late 2010 with estimated annual losses into the millions.

In response to the bleaching, Thailand’s Department of National Parks temporarily shut down 18 popular diving sites, including tourism hot spot Phi Phi, and Similan, which is one of the top 10 diving destinations in the world, according to the National Geographic Society. The bleached reefs stayed closed until February 15, 2013 to allow the coral recover.

Many observers said the cause of the Thai bleaching outbreak was extreme heat stress due to climate change, as ocean temperatures hover around 30 degrees Celsius (86 Fahrenheit). Under heat stress, corals eject the algae that live inside their tissues and provide food in exchange for shelter. The ejection process is known as bleaching because of the white skeleton left behind when the corals get sick. Sustained whitening can trigger the partial or total death of coral colonies, which has happened to some parts of the Thai reefs.

“If there is a long-term solution to the Thai problem — and the global problem — it lies in finding a realistic alternative to the combustion of fossil fuels, thus reducing the CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere,” said Monty Halls, a spokesperson for the UK-based Shark and Coral Conservation Trust (SCCT), who warned that it is quickly becoming too late for the world’s corals.