Jul 7, 2022 • 9M

Couchfish Day 315: Lessons From Across the Sea

Thoughts on avoiding the Ko Lipe experience.

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The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.
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As anyone who has been to Ko Lipe in the last decade or so will know, the island I’ve described over the past two days no longer exists. The island, at least pre-pandemic, was home to over 100 hotels and north of one thousand rooms. Damaged reefs, pollution, water access and various social and land-ownership issues are common. This is a transition Thai islands are well familiar with, with the country having honed “paving over paradise” to a fine art. For another, more slow-moving example, I look across the water to the east, to Ko Bulon Lae.

Closer to the coast, the island stumbled onto the backpacker radar around the same time as Lipe. It lacks Lipe’s bounty of fine beaches, but it does have one particularly lovely white-sand beach. As Lipe’s popularity took off, Bulon Lae was more of a slow burner. A popular one with long-stay, repeat visitors, particularly families with young kids.

Ko Bulon Lae has all sorts of pretty. Photo: David Luekens.

Development on Bulon Lae has been slower, yet the issue train is still rolling along. Home to only a dozen or so places to stay versus Lipe’s hundred, the number has barely budged over the last two decades. For residents, tourism offered an escape from a life of relative poverty. Tourism could be a better-paying alternative.

In practice, as this 2016 thesis by Banthita Limpradit discusses, the results—so far—are mixed. If you’re not up for reading the whole thing, skip ahead to Chapter Six and Seven.

Let’s start with the upside—tourists like to eat. Restaurants, an area that offered in particular employment opportunities for women, showed promise. Local women saw fishing as “men’s work” and for cultural reasons tended to stay at home and care for the family. By running a home kitchen, women were able to earn some extra money. This, in turn, bolstered savings, insulating against downturns in fishing (an omnipresent issue), or when the breadwinner was unable to fish.

Will doing beach research on Ko Bulon Lae. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

There are also (yet-unrealised) opportunities to showcase local food. Tourists spend about a third of their money stuffing their faces, so leveraging that into local produce makes sense. Every product imported from the mainland (or overseas) sees money leave the island. Local fare equals money staying local. Eateries could offer prawn crackers and fish crisps in lieu of french fries for example.

Bulon Lae lacks land for largescale cultivation, so imports are unavoidable, but every change counts. Restaurants offering pizza, pasta and wine may please tourists, but they hurt the local economy. Stronger linkages could be developed between restaurants and food suppliers on the island. “Bulon food” could be a thing. Tourists eating in such establishments would expand the demand for local agricultural practices. This in turn would financially benefit those not directly involved in tourism.

Off the beach and out of mind. Photo: David Luekens.

This is already happening in the fisheries. Fishers prefer to sell their catch to tourist restaurants over middlemen as it gets them a better price. Bulon Lae’s fisheries may be over-exploited, but commercial trawlers—rather than local fishers—are to blame. Restaurants could showcase their seafood as line-caught by locals—if it is—and charge a premium for it.

An added benefit for fishers who own their boats is running trips for tourists. Be it snorkelling, beach or island trips, they can sometimes double their income doing this. Often with considerably less effort, using a boat that would otherwise be idle.

Over the years, other benefits including a phone signal (and so, WiFi) arrived. As did improved ferry access from the mainland town of Pakbara and other islands in the Andaman Sea. While these came to meet the demands of tourists, locals also benefitted. As they did through improved power (via a solar set-up) and water management.

Better for the local economy than a pepperoni pizza. Photo: David Luekens.

The island’s cultural heritage also received a shot in the arm. Traditional dance, long feared to be fading, picked up, boosting locals’ cultural pride. Monthly community meetings served as forums to discuss a wide variety of issues. Tourism-related ones, such as scanty dress and consumption of alcohol were common talking points.

While education is compulsory in Thailand, kids are sometimes withdrawn from school to help with fishing. Insufficient schooling leaves the kids facing a choice of fishing or unskilled work. Language courses, in a variety of forms, took place over the years, but courses were often too short. “A waste of time that was better-spent fishing” in some locals’ view.

Beach jeweller with funds supporting local kids. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

The core issues though were (and remain) a lack of capital, affordable loans, and land ownership. One example is instructive. The TAT required proper toilets for tourism businesses, yet this was beyond the means of some. Other requirements, around business management and so on, were beyond the skills of many. The transition from crab fisher to guesthouse manager has little crossover. This lack of training and know-how often left unskilled work, such as cleaning, the only in to tourism. Conditions are often exploitative, with work sometimes paid less than fishing—as little as 200 baht per day.

The core issue though is land. The first tourist accommodation was Pansand, opened by some mainland investors in 1990. It remains, to this day, the only property on the island with a legal land title. Of thirteen bungalow businesses on the island, only four are local-owned. Many are off-the-beach, in part due to them starting as an extension from the local’s house—due to lack of capital. The outsider-owned properties, on the best stretches of beach, with tourism expertise, have thrived. The local-owned businesses, not so much.

For many, tourists remain off the menu. Photo: David Luekens.

The above sounds like a mixed bag of results, and it is. That said, on almost all counts, Ko Bulon Lae has fared better than Ko Lipe. If the island could wind back the clock two decades, what could be done even better? Land title is the obvious one, a small language, business and tourism training centre another. Access to soft loans a third.

That is only one side of the coin though. Tourists need to look at their own practices as well. To seek out locally owned businesses. To skip burgers and pizza and try, then grow to love, local fare—shrimp crackers are great! To stay longer and eat wider. To avail themselves of more boat tours and snorkelling trips. To work harder to make sure whatever impact they’re having is, as much as possible, a positive one.

That’s the best way to avoid another Ko Lipe.


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