The recent controversy over the encroachment on Phu Thap Boek mountain is simply another example of the uncontrolled growth of tourism in Thailand. In the past couple of years, many resorts and tourist lodges had sprung up at the top of Phu Thap Boek mountain in Phetchabun, which was originally meant to be preserved for Hmong resettlement and kept as a natural upstream habitat.
But today the omnipresent sight of Phu Thap Boek is not of a lush green forest, but of shoddy buildings and hideous hotel resorts that have illegally invaded the area.
Royal Forestry Department and the Social Development and Welfare Department officials on Thursday surveyed the area encroached on and agreed to create a master plan to crack down on illegal buildings at Phu Thap Boek.
Let’s hope they also crack down on the illegal commerce taking place at the peak. Unfortunately, what happened at Phu Thap Boek seems like deja vu for most of the tourist destinations located within national parks.
A couple of years ago, authorities investigated encroachment on state-owned land in Suan Phung, a district in Ratchaburi near the Thai-Myanmar border where the forest and greenery had been destroyed to make way for hotels and restaurants to attract tourists.
Last year, nature-lovers also raised the issue of illegal commercial activity taking place in national park forests in Wang Nam Khieo district in Nakhon Ratchasima province to the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry.
Based on lessons of other national parks, which saw the rapid growth of commerce and hotels, the encroachment at Phu Thap Boek should have been prevented, but it was not. The authorities continue to fail to properly manage tourism hotspots to effectively protect Thailand’s natural resources.
To fix the problem, authorities now plan to demolish some of the buildings at Phu Thap Boek, which were constructed without proper permission. But construction materials and polluted waste could have a long-lasting impact on the site.
In fact, Phu Thap Boek was meant to be a resettlement area for hill-tribe people. In 1966, the government gave the Welfare Department permission to use about 47,000 rai of land on Phu Thap Boek for Hmong hill-tribe people from various provinces of the country to live on. The peak is one of the largest areas for cabbage plantations in Thailand.
The resettlement project was intended to preserve the cultural diversity of ethnic minorities by giving them land to practice their traditional agricultural lifestyle on, growing economically viable crops such as cabbages and other cold-climate produce as a means of livelihood.
But in recent years, the national parks instead became trendy tourist destinations — especially for urban tourists seeking a respite from crowded cities.
After Phu Thap Boek was discovered by tourists, the welfare-allotted land began to change hands to investors. Without proper supervision by authorities, the peak rapidly became the site of unmanaged and uncontrolled commercial businesses, at the expense of its natural charm.
The new buildings were constructed without taking into account the pollution they caused to the surroundings. There are no laws to regulate the height of buildings or the use of construction materials with the least damaging impact on the forest. The mountain’s soil — which naturally absorbs rain water — had been replaced by cement pathways. Meanwhile, massive piles of waste are evidence that Phu Thap Boek was far from prepared to receive hordes of tourists.
The Royal Forestry Department and the Social Development Welfare Department have no other option but to evict the illegal commercial establishments from the area and to reforest the site.
Strict enforcement of the court order to remove the restaurants and resorts must be carried out to set an example — national parks cannot be compromised by illegal means. Authorities, meanwhile, need to lay down rules and regulations to properly manage tourist destinations to ensure that commercial activities do not adversely affect the unique characteristics of a place.
Some national parks limit the numbers of visitors allowed per day to avoid overcrowding and uncontrolled pollution. It is also not necessary for a national park to have fancy hotels or five-star resorts.
Finally, tourists must learn how to be eco-friendly. Travelling to parks should not be about comfortable infrastructure — it is about how tourism can co-exist with the local community. The success of a tourist destination lies in its ability to maintain its unique charm and engage the local community to take part in its development, not force visitors upon them at their expense.