Infrastructure issues on popular tourist islands present an increasingly difficult challenge for those in charge of holiday destinations. In Thailand, a new administration on Koh Samui is looking at ways to keep pace with development.
Ever increasing numbers of international visitors place heavy demands on the natural resources in tropical islands. Tourists generate excessive amounts of waste, increased road and sea traffic threatens forests and coral reefs, while construction dramatically changes the once pristine landscape. On Koh Samui in Thailand, despite impressive annual revenue from tourism, the local government faces an uphill battle when it comes to implementing policies that will ensure the island develops sustainably. The fast pace and unregulated nature of development stands in sharp contrast to the modest budgets and standardised policies applied in Bangkok. But new approaches to local government are now stimulating change.
Like most offshore islands, Koh Samui was, until recently, governed from the mainland and allocated funds based on its modest local population. A handful of special projects were funded directly from the capital, but in general the island's public sector was left to languish in provincial scarcity. Now with a team of islanders in charge, the current administration is keen to make sure the projects and solutions they apply last well into the future. "Thorough research, consultation with experts and clearly structured project plans are essential," said Khun Sinn Muenslip Poolsawat, Advisor to the Mayor's office. "We need to apply policies and laws that make sense for the island, with taxes used to benefit both the local population and the tourist infrastructure. We are keen to apply our inside knowledge now to create a more beneficial system of local government that is not only relevant to Samui, but also balanced and fair."
To that end, the officers at the Samui Municipality are working on a proposal that will give the island greater autonomy and therefore greater control over its projects and budgets. Bangkok granted intermediate City Status last year, but based on other locations such as Pattaya and Phuket, local leaders feel that standard local government structures do not take into account tourism as a major factor. They are therefore hoping to secure special status for the island that will allow for a dedicated Department of Tourism, as well as other administrative systems that specifically apply to Samui.
The island's roads were one of the first priorities. Uneven, damaged concrete was causing accidents and delays. After lengthy discussions with Thailand's Highways Department, the new Samui administration managed to a secure a road improvement budget and set a realistic schedule. The first phase was designed to complete most of the Ring Road in time for a planned visit by Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn in early 2010, to officially open the Samui Court. Phase Two will begin later in the year, with the aim being to tarmac all the island's main access routes, including the most popular side roads. "We are asphalting all the island's roads, while adding drainage channels at the same time," explained Khun Sinn. "In order to guarantee longevity we tested the bitumen mix first on a stretch of road by the main port to make sure it stood up to constant use."
The road project is one of several pressing issues facing the Samui Municipality this year. Having inherited some serious problems, they have now set priorities to research and address. The next big project is waste management. The island's incinerator in no longer functioning, so a lined land fill site has been created to deal with rubbish. Meanwhile, garbage separation systems are being developed to prevent further damage once the incinerator is repaired. "When it comes to infrastructure, we started with a serious deficit," explained Khun Sinn. "Now is the time to apply all the resources we have to find practical, lasting solutions."
By Jules Kay