On the Thai Island of Koh Tao, Can Tourism and the Environment Coexist? (2023)


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Travel to Southeast Asia is picking up again, and an island known for snorkeling and diving, part of a popular circuit, wants tourists back. But can development and nature stay in balance?

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On the Thai Island of Koh Tao, Can Tourism and the Environment Coexist? (1)

By Patrick Scott

On the high-speed ferry from Koh Samui, one of Thailand’s biggest islands, to the smaller neighbor of Koh Tao, known for its budget scuba diving and snorkeling and idyllic beaches and bays, it seemed like old times.

The double-decker catamaran was nearly full, the bow and main cabin piled with backpacks and roller bags as the 300-plus-seat boat cut through the glittering azure sea. And when the mostly white, mostly European travelers, many of them families, filed into the searing sunshine one afternoon in late August and onto Koh Tao’s weathered wooden pier, it was crammed with travelers waiting under a long blue canopy to board.

But looks can be deceiving. On Koh Tao, as throughout Thailand and much of Southeast Asia, tourism’s comeback has been slow. While travelers crowded the dock for the arrival of the afternoon ferry, only one catamaran company was running in August, instead of the usual three, with fewer boats. And behind the explosions of signs for diving schools, snorkeling tours and motorbike rentals, a number of business fronts were empty or shuttered.


Unlike Europe and North America, where travel started rebounding as early as 2021, it wasn’t until the spring of this year that foreign visitors began returning to much of the region, when countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia started welcoming them without a quarantine.

Thailand dropped its remaining “Thai Pass” Covid-19 registration and restrictions in July, and the government is aiming for 10 million visitors this year — a substantial number, but just a quarter of the 2019 record. The industry is not going to come close to that peak until China, which contributed a quarter of foreign arrivals before Covid, drops its draconian zero-Covid policies and frees its citizens to travel again.

In the meantime, tourists on the three-island circuit of Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao in the Gulf of Thailand were still getting to marvel at the clearer water and the fish, turtles and sharks that materialized around the islands during the pandemic lull. (On land, they’re also smelling the pungent smoke of marijuana, after Thailand legalized weed in June.)

“I thought it would maybe be more crowded,” said Daniel Lundgrun, who was strolling with three other young Germans on a quiet terrace under the Big Buddha statue on the north side of Koh Samui. “But it’s pretty empty here.”


Turning unspoiled landscapes into tourist playgrounds

In a certain sense, Koh Samui is emblematic of the transformation of segments of Thailand and Southeast Asia from unspoiled and bountiful landscapes into jam-packed tourism playgrounds, complete with all the trappings of Western self-gratification, from sprawling luxury resorts to Hard Rock Cafes to Hooters.

It’s as much a magnet for the wealthy staying in mountainside condos or Six Senses as it is for budget travelers, who can spend from around $10 to $25 a night at hostels and cheap hotels, and just a few dollars on a local dish like chicken and rice or pad Thai. And like many places in the region, before the pandemic it was becoming increasingly popular with Chinese tourists, with an influx of 300,000 in 2019, or about 13 percent of the 2.4 million total visitors to Koh Samui.

Once a haven for fishermen and coconut farmers, the island of 88 square miles, now with smooth roads winding over steep hills with sweeping views of the arcing shoreline, is densely developed on the east coast, including key beaches of Chaweng, Lamai and Bophut. But regulations limit the height of buildings to 12 meters, or three stories, so the developments are agreeably low slung, and the island has retained elements of pristine isolation in some areas of the south and west, like in Talig Ngam and in the middle of the island, where the tropical forest is dotted with waterfalls.

On the commercial strip behind Chaweng Beach, where many of the businesses on the outskirts were vacant recently, the walking street known as Soi Green Mango was straining to get its mojo back. Most of the back alley bars with young Thai women in revealing outfits calling out, “Hello, welcome,” were deserted in late August. But under the spotlights of the warehouselike Green Mango nightclub, young Westerners filled more than half the dance floor and tables.


Tourism officials on Koh Samui said that about 70 percent of accommodations were reopened during the high season of July and August, while in some places like Fisherman’s Village in the north, where the main pedestrian street is lined with upscale boutiques and restaurants, nearly all businesses were open. Some business owners there, like the restaurateur Frederic Georgelin, were predicting that the next high season, from around Christmas through March, could be even better than before Covid.

“Already many of the hotels reserve bookings every day, some of them are already full, the prices for rooms and villas are growing very fast,” said Mr. Georgelin, who owns an Italian-Asian fusion restaurant and La Cantina Tex-Mex restaurant, where he sat at the bar greeting French compatriots. “So hopefully many people will come to Samui.”

The island is typically the start of the circuit for travelers who unwind at the beaches and restaurants of Koh Samui, then head to Koh Phangan for the full moon party or a meditation retreat, then cruise over to Koh Tao for diving and snorkeling.


A new fee for conservation

Among the changes awaiting them is a new tourist user fee that Koh Tao imposed in April. Visitors are met by a banner proclaiming the fee — 20 baht, or about 55 cents, the price of a can of soda — in Thai and English stating that it is for “port management, waste management and the conservation of the environment, nature and biodiversity on Koh Tao.”

The local government instituted the fee in conjunction with a biodiversity financing initiative called BIOFIN, under the United Nations Development Program. The island’s mayor, Watcharin Fahsiriphon, says he’s earmarking the money to help fund, in part, burying and burning the island’s “big mountain” of trash, promoting alternatives to diving like hiking and bouldering, as well as projects to restore damaged coral reefs.

The user fee was part of a rethink during the pandemic about the toll tourism was taking on the island’s marquee attractions — from snorkelers trampling on coral to boats spewing oil in the sea to erosion from construction. The pause also led to regular beach and underwater cleanups by community and diving groups, as well as new coral restoration projects around Koh Tao.

“Koh Tao people want to make sure that when tourists come they can treasure the beauty of nature, and we keep working on that,” said Dr. Watcharin, framed portraits of former and current Thai royalty on the wall in his spartan corner office overlooking lush hillsides.

Challenges abound. Although some hotels and restaurants offer water-fill stations and metal or bamboo straws, single-use plastic is rampant around the island. A renewable energy project started more than a decade ago has been long abandoned, a single wind turbine motionless on a hilltop as a constant reminder.

Koh Tao’s reputation was tarnished with the label “death island” in the middle of last decade after at least nine European tourists died or disappeared there, including two British tourists who were murdered on a darkened beach in 2014. (Many tourists interviewed in August were unaware or unconcerned about the notoriety, saying they felt safer on the island than in their home cities in Europe.)

And, small as it is, the user fee isn’t even being regularly collected. Tourists handed over the fee to government workers as they exited the pier through one passage, but no one collected it at the second exit, and the staffers were off duty when the late ferry arrived. If fully collected from the half million annual visitors who typically arrived in the years before Covid-19, the fee could raise 10 million baht, or around $275,000, about a quarter of the municipality’s current budget.

“For the past five months we’ve learned a lot and this is like a trial stage,” said Dr. Watcharin, who owns two hotels and a diving business and was the island’s longtime public health officer.


Leaning into ‘eco’

Across the eight-square-mile island of steep, mostly undeveloped hills and stunning aquamarine bays, it’s easy to find a modest villa with a view of the water for $20 to $40 a night, or splurge on a sea-view house with a pool for $150 or more a night. There are no traffic lights, no international five-star resorts; building height is capped at 6 meters, or two stories, well below the tops of coconut palms, and jet skis are not allowed.

During the height of the pandemic, Vie Boursmui and other Thai and foreign diving instructors had time on their hands and the government’s marine resources department gave them permission to start eight coral restoration projects around the island. Mr. Vie, an instructor for more than 20 years, worked for three months in Aow Leuk Bay with other divers taking naturally detached pieces of coral and fastening them to submerged concrete blocks and metal frames that eventually will be encrusted in new coral formations.

Climate change has killed most of the coral in the warm shallows, he said, so the divers set up some 600 yards of coral plantations in cooler water 10 to 15 meters below the surface.

“The nature brings the customers,” said Mr. Vie, as groups of divers from Britain, the Netherlands, Australia, Israel and Spain filled the tables at Ban’s Diving Resort for a post-scuba sunset drink. “So we must protect the nature.”

A hub for reimagining life and tourism on the island sits nearby on the leafy, palm-fringed north end of Sairee Beach in an area locals call Soi Island. Bronzed and relaxed visitors perused the vegan menus at the Factory and VegetaBowl restaurants, browsed the handmade soaps and coasters made from recycled plastic at May & Co., carried stand-up paddle boards from Evasion watersports into the gleaming sea, sweated on yoga mats at Untamed Wellness Studio and trained for freediving at Apnea Total.


During the pandemic, when islanders had time to do regular cleanups of the beaches and the sea, the heaps of plastic gave Witchuda Damnoenyut, who goes by May, an idea. She bought a plastic shredder, melting machine and molds, and started turning detritus into coasters, game blocks, soap dishes and even medals for the island’s first mountain trails marathon last May.

She opened her Plas Tao workshop last year and sells the recycled goods in her May & Co. handicrafts and natural soaps shop, as well as to other green-minded businesses, like vegetarian restaurants and the EcoTao Lodge in the hills.

“I feel like the Koh Tao community does a lot compared to other parts of Thailand,” said Ms. Witchuda, as her sole worker banged out molds on a bench, while workers with a screaming metal saw turned an empty storefront across the street into a weed and wine bar. “Independent businesses try a lot to attract people by becoming more eco.”

Down the street from May & Co. where the gray brick walking path is lined with low-slung bungalows, dive shops, open-air restaurants and bamboo beach bars under the shade of palm trees, René Hagen was helping customers take standup paddleboards for a sunset glide off Sairee Beach.

Mr. Hagen, from Denmark, and his American wife, Rachel Yaseen, took over Evasion, an outdoor sports company, in May after bicycling around the world for three and a half years, and wanting a place to rest. She opened Untamed yoga studio a couple doors down, and they bought three sea-view villas in the hills on the south side of the island to rent out during the high seasons.

“It’s hard to say what’s not to like — there’s a huge variety of good restaurants and it’s affordable; the diving here is so super-easy and chill, and from the villa we can sit in the pool and see the turtles and the sharks,” Mr. Hagen said. “And the hiking here is definitely challenging, because of the steep hills.”

Evasion also offers tubing and wakeboarding, and he’s turning their boat into a solar-powered craft so it gives tourists a quiet ride and doesn’t harm the coral. He also has on order eight electric bicycles, and is in the process of getting their villas powered by solar panels and looking into renting electric motorbikes.

EcoTao, which opened on a steep, forested hill just months before the pandemic cut off tourism in March 2020, is perhaps the island’s only actual eco accommodation, where the 12 bungalows are made of bamboo and teak, most of the power comes from 100 solar panels, and rainwater is collected for showers.

Founder Yves Frangioni, a French entrepreneur and sportsman who moved to the island 16 years ago, believes the eco trend might be starting to catch on with tourists and businesses.

“We opened in December and we are busy always,” he said in a phone interview on his way to France for a couple of months. “I hope that many start like me, because it’s important for the small island, the planet, everything.”

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Continue reading the main story


Is it worth visiting Koh Tao? ›

And the answer is YES – Koh Tao is totally worth visiting when you are into stunning white sand beaches and marine life activities. The island is surrounded by large rock formations covered with incredible coral reefs and an abundance of marine life.

How long should you stay in Koh Tao? ›

Honestly, I recommend spending about 2 days in Koh Tao during your Thailand itinerary. Though this will depend on how many islands you plan on a visit before or after. As if you are beach hopping your way down Thailand 2 days will be enough.

What ocean is Koh Tao in? ›

the Gulf of Thailand

What is Thailand known for? ›

Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country never to have been colonized by a European power. It is known for its beautiful nature, delicious mangoes and strict rules about conversations on its monarchy.

Is Koh Tao a party island? ›

Koh Tao is certainly a good place to party! Almost all the nightclubs and bars are located near Sairee beach, Koh Tao's longest and most commercial beach. You can witness fire-dancing performances, go to cabaret shows, and listen to and dance to live music with international DJs.

Is Koh Tao expensive? ›

Koh Tao is more expensive than Koh Phangan, but it's still affordable. You can expect to pay a bit more in terms of accommodation.

Can you walk around Koh Tao? ›

Koh Tao is a small island and it's possible to walk about and explore most of it in 3–4 days. The roads here are about 80% concrete, and the remainder is dirt track. The main roads are fairly new and wide and there are continuing roadworks around the island.

Where should I live in Koh Tao? ›

Best Places to Live in Koh Tao
  • Mae Haad.
  • Sairee Beach.
  • Chalok Bay.
  • Tanote Bay.
27 Sept 2021

What is Koh Tao known for? ›

Koh Tao has long been known among travelers as a scuba diving mecca, boasting some of the lowest prices in the world paired with quality standards of instruction, and incredible marine life to boot.

Why is Koh Tao called Turtle island? ›

Koh Tao is a paradise island located in the Gulf of Thailand. The name in English means 'Turtle Island' as there use to be an abundance of turtles around its shores.

Are there dolphins in Koh Tao? ›

SURAT THANI: Almost 20 dolphins were spotted in the sea near Koh Tao on Saturday, to the delight and excitement of Thai tourists visiting the island in the Gulf of Thailand.

What language do Thai speak? ›

While the official Thai language is widely spoken throughout Thailand, many Thais also speak and understand English, though more so in Bangkok and the major tourist areas.

Who is the most famous person from Thailand? ›

The most famous man in the country, and someone whose portrait you will see everywhere during your travels in Thailand, is no other than the king himself. Bhumibol Adulyadej, also known as Rama IX, began reigning over the country in 1950, when he was 23 years old.

Why Thailand is most visited country? ›

Thailand is famous for having more tourists (per capita) than anywhere else in the world! People go due to Thailand's natural and cultural beauty, and also for its well-developed tourism facilities and convenient travel.

Is Koh Tao safe for tourists? ›

Koh Tao is very safe for backpackers as long as common sense is used. There is a vibrant backpacker scene on the island, and therefore many hostels and guest houses where you can meet fellow travellers to explore and enjoy the island with.

Are there monkeys on Koh Tao? ›

Koh Tao doesn't have a native monkey population, although there are rumours that they exist in some of the most uninhabited corners of the jungle. Snakes – Koh Tao is home to some stunning species of snakes. Some you are most likely to see include vine snakes, golden tree snakes, and common wolf snakes.

Is Full Moon Party free? ›

The Full Moon party entry fee costs 200 baht ($ 6) which you can purchase at the several entrances that lead to Haad Rin beach. You will be given a wristband. If you are a guest at the Haad Rin resort or arrive at the beach before 6 pm, you may be able to get in for free!

Is Koh Tao cheaper than Koh Samui? ›

Koh Samui is in general more expensive than Koh Tao. Koh Samui is also more touristy, there is an airport and mass tourism is a Koh Samui issue. With mass tourism comes higher prices. That said it is still very much possible to visit Koh Samui on a backpacker budget.

Is Koh Tao cheap? ›

Koh Tao is one of the cheapest and safest places in the world to learn to scuba dive.

Does Koh Tao have an airport? ›

The small paradise island Koh Tao is situated in the Gulf of Thailand north of Koh Samui and Koh Phangan. Koh Tao has no airport. Whether you choose to come by flight, bus or train you will always need to take the ferry as the last leg of your journey.

How many nights does Koh Tao have? ›

Koh Tao is the smallest of the three islands, so, if you are not diving, then three days should give you enough time to catch the highlights. Koh Tao is part of a set of three islands, along with Koh Phangan and Koh Samui, in the Gulf of Thailand which is famous for its scuba diving and snorkeling.

How much does it cost to dive in Koh Tao? ›

Entry level diving experiences on Koh Tao start at 2,500baht for Discover Scuba Diving and 11,000baht for the world's most popular entry level diving course – PADI Open Water course.

How much is the ferry from Chumphon to Koh Tao? ›

Lomprayah Fast Ferry Chumphon to Koh Tao

The ferries leave at 7am and 1pm and a one-way ticket costs 600THB for an adult and 300THB for a child. The journey time is 1h30min.

Is Koh Tao family friendly? ›

The easy answer is yes, Koh Tao is great for families, and there is plenty to do for children! But of course, there is more to it than that, and as a parent, it is always important to do your research ahead of time to ensure your stay is fun, hassle-free and enjoyed by all of the family.

Can you extend visa on Koh Tao? ›

Any 60 day single entry Thailand Tourist Visa can be extended for a further 30 days at an immigration office for 1900THB, allowing you a 3 month stay in total. From Koh Tao, the nearest immigration office is a ferry ride away on Koh Samui.

Where is the main area Koh Tao? ›

Mae Haad is the main village and the first place you see when you arrive on Koh Tao. With all ferries arriving and departing from Koh Tao mooring at the main pier, it is one of the busiest areas on the island during the day, however, it can be quiet in the evening.

What is there to do in Koh Tao at night? ›

Spend the sunset at the Beach Bar on Sairee Beach

Sometimes relaxed live music, e.g. in the Blue Water Cafe & Restaurant or some house and drum'n'bass in the Maya Beach Club. A great end to the day or a great start to the nightlife of Koh Tao, which also takes place mainly on Sairee Beach.

Where can I see turtles in Koh Tao? ›

Scuba Divers can find the majestic Green Sea Turtle at many of the dive sites around Koh Tao including White Rock, Twins, Hin Pee Wee, Hin Wong, Shark Island and Aow Leuk bay.

Where are the best beaches in Thailand? ›

We've hand-picked the best beaches in Thailand.
  • Ao Prao, Koh Samet. ...
  • Maya Bay, Koh Phi Phi Leh. ...
  • Choeng Mon Beach, Koh Samui. ...
  • Railay Beach, Krabi. ...
  • Tub Kaek Beach, Krabi. ...
  • Pak Weep Beach & Khuk Khak Beach, Khao Lak. ...
  • Mai Khao Beach, Phuket. ...
  • Kata Beach, Phuket. Best beach for surfing, snorkelling and soft sands.

Is there a ferry to Koh Tao? ›

Koh Tao is an island in the Gulf of Thailand that is located around 70 kilometres from the mainland and only accessible by ferry boats. There are connections from Bangkok and from the far south of Thailand and you need to reach one of the ferry departure piers at Koh Samui, Donsak, Surat Thani or Chumphon.

How long does it take from Koh Samui to Koh Tao? ›

Total: 1 Hr. 45 Min. Lomlahkkhirin High Speed Ferries Co, Ltd deliver fun and exciting day trip packages from their base in Koh Samui to Koh Tao & Koh Nangyuan and Angthong National Marine Park with an option of beginning the tour from the neighboring island of Koh Phangan.

How long does it take to get from Koh Tao to Koh Phangan? ›

How long is the ferry from Koh Tao to Koh Phangan? The typical crossing time for ferries from Koh Tao to Koh Phangan is approximately 1h 27m.

Can you swim with turtles in Thailand? ›

No marine life encounter is guaranteed but the chance of snorkeling with sea turtles whilst in Thailand is pretty high. Turtles can be seen almost anywhere, the most common places are the Similan Islands (mooring rocks, island number 9), the Surin Islands and the Phi Phi Islands.

Are there turtles on Koh Tao? ›

The coastal waters off Koh Tao have both Hawksbill and Green Sea Turtles as residents, which can be frequently seen if you are scuba diving or snorkeling.

Is Koh Samui good for diving? ›

Offering a number of beautiful diving sites, Koh Samui is indeed the place to experience scuba diving at its best. A hub of unique marine life, pristine clear water and beautiful corals, Koh Samui needs to be on your bucket list this year.

Are there sharks in Koh Tao? ›

On Koh Tao, we can still find a few different species of sharks, although the numbers have been decreasing drastically over the years. The most commonly seen is the Carcharhinus Limbatu, also known as Black Tip Reef Shark, due to their black tipped snouts and dorsal fins.

Can you swim with dolphins in Thailand? ›

Swimming with dolphins is possible at some destinations in Thailand, but the city of Pattaya is known as the best place to swim with dolphins. Swimming with dolphins is possible at some destinations in Thailand, but the city of Pattaya is known as the best place to swim with dolphins.

Are there pink dolphins in Thailand? ›

Visiting Khanom Beach to see the pink dolphins is an experience that cannot be found elsewhere in Thailand. At Khanom Beach, there are more than 50 pink dolphins found in the area of Laem Prathab and Ao Kwang Phao in Khanom District of Nakhon Si Thammarat Province. The pink dolphins are also known as humpback dolphins.

How does a man say thank you in Thai? ›

Most of the time, you will use this phrase with polite particles: ค่ะ /ka/ and ครับ /krab/. For examples: ขอบคุณค่ะ /khoob-khun ka/ used by a female speaker. ขอบคุณครับ /khoob-khun krab/ used by a male speaker.

Where do most Americans live in Thailand? ›

The three most popular areas in Thailand for expats are Chiang Mai, Koh Samui and, of course, Bangkok. If you are moving to Bangkok, some of the most popular areas for expats include: Ekkamai. Sathorn.

What is the drink of Thailand? ›

17- Sabai Sabai

Many hotels offer a welcome drink of Thai herbal tea served in beautiful silver bowls. Sabai Sabai, or the “Thai Welcome Drink” as it's also known, is the official alcoholic drink of Thailand, incorporating Mekhong liqueur with lime juice, syrup and basil leaves to create the perfect Thai cocktail.

Where do celebrities live in Thailand? ›

Call it Bangkok's Lower East Side. Home to Thai celebrities, VIPs, Japanese businessmen and sophisticated expats, the district has more recently emerged as a wonderland of upmarket dining, drinking and partying. (Locals call Thonglor “hi-so,” as in high society.)

Who is the most handsome actor in Thailand? ›

Mario Maurer

When it comes to Thai actors, his name is one of the most famous. With a German, Chinese and Thai descent, this actor started his career in the showbiz industry as a model and later in the year 2007, was given the lead role in the Thai movie, The Love Of Siam.

What is the most tourist country in the world? ›

Welcoming more than 89 million visitors per year, France is the most visited country in the world. Little wonder, owing to the eternal pull of the cosmopolitan capital of Paris.

What is the rank of Thailand in tourism? ›

Thailand recorded a total of 40 million tourists in 2019, ranking 5th in the world in absolute terms. Without including the size of a country, such a ranking list may not be very meaningful.
Most popular destinations in Thailand.
4 more columns

Is Thailand a nice place to live? ›

Thailand is one of the world's most popular locales for good living abroad. And there are lots of reasons why. For pennies on the dollar, you get a year-round tropical climate and access to modern comforts and conveniences, including affordable, high-quality medical care.

What is the famous product of Thailand? ›

Thailand is renowned for beautiful silks and fabrics. Make sure you drop by the famous Jim Thompson house for their high-quality silk products. High recommended as souvenirs such as table runners and pouches that come in bright colors and patterns for family and friends.

Why is Thailand amazing? ›

Thailand has emerged as one of the most visited tourist destinations in the world. What could be the reasons that people love to travel to this exotic destination? It could be the tranquil beaches, exotic cuisine, magnificent temples and scenery, colourful history, or cultural and archaeological sites.

Why is Thailand called the Land of Smiles? ›

Thailand is often referred to as “The Land of Smiles.” It got this nickname because in Thailand, a smile is much more than just a smile…it is a form of subtle interpersonal-messaging. There are at least 13 different smiles that a Thai person may use, each one having a very specific meaning.

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