The Koh Samet Oil Spill Is Just the Latest Tourism Disaster to Hit Thailand

The current predicament is just one of a number of tourism calamities Thailand has suffered in recent years. And it's likely the country's tourism industry will survive this one as it has survived the others

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Jack Kurtz / ZUMAPRESS

A worker cleans up oil spill on Ao Prao Beach on Koh Samet, Thailand, on Aug. 2, 2013

Correction appended: Aug. 9, 2013

Cleanup is currently under way on Koh Samet, as volunteers attempt to scrub away some of the oil that has besmirched the Thai island’s famed pearl-white beaches. Some 50,000 L of crude leaked into the picturesque Thai Gulf on July 27, according to contrite oil giant PTT Global Chemical, with a large amount drifting over to the popular tourist destination. But despite reports of horrified vacationers fleeing in droves and a disastrous effect on the nation’s hospitality industry, in truth the current predicament is just one of a number of tourism calamities Thailand has suffered in recent years. And if the past is anything to go by, it will survive this one as it has survived the others.

Colorful temples, picture-postcard beaches, charming people and low costs explain why tourist arrivals in the “land of smiles” reached a record high of 12.7 million arrivals for the six months since January. Bangkok also became the world’s most visited city last year with 15.98 million international visitors spending one night or more there. Admittedly, the black sand, rust-colored surf and foul stench afflicting sun worshippers on Koh Samet “has definitely had an effect and a few people who run resorts say they’ve had a huge amount of cancellations,” says Lizzie Cameron-Johnston, of Glasgow in Scotland, who has owned Baan Tuu Taan guesthouse on the island for the past 13 years. Nevertheless, “small operators are expected to bounce back quickly,” she adds.

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The ability to bounce back is an extraordinary attribute of the Thai tourist industry, which has had to cope with a decade horribilis. The Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 devastated popular resorts such as Phuket, Koh Phi Phi and Krabi with 2,510 foreigners confirmed dead. Political protests gripped Bangkok between 2005 and ’06, resulting in the November 2008 occupation of Suvarnabhumi Airport — the kingdom’s main gateway — by thousands of royalist Yellow Shirt demonstrators. In 2010, their rival Red Shirts, who supported ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, took over the capital’s main shopping district for two months, and the resulting crackdown claimed 80-odd lives and caused 2,000 people. The next year Thailand witnessed its worst flooding in half-century, inundating 90,000 sq km of land. Meanwhile, fighting in Thailand’s Muslim-majority southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat has claimed more than 4,000 lives since 2004, just a stone’s throw from the tranquil waters of Koh Lipe.

Almost all of these events have resulted in world governments issuing travel-advisory warnings against Thailand. Nevertheless, arrival numbers continue to soar. “People seem to be able to cope with these problems,” Kevin Hewison, professor and director of the Asia Research Centre at Australia’s Murdoch University, tells TIME. “Even when you have a bunch of bad stuff happens to individuals, people in general have a good time.” And bad stuff does keep happening, including sexual assaults, serial poisonings, machete attacks, shootings and even the recent murder of an American tourist apparently because he refused to stop singing.

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So what is behind Thailand’s ability to lure visitors while muddling through one disaster after the next? Improved infrastructure helps — provinces that were once served by converted military airports now boast facility-laden modern terminals, and the road network is decent, with only the antiquated rail system remaining from a different century. At the same time, development has not erased the country’s appealing street life, with stalls hawking everything from pungent curries to T-shirts. Experts also point to the diversity of the country’s product offerings: backpackers can find budget digs while moneyed jet-setters can unwind in resplendent boutique resorts. Scandinavians escape their bitter winters for long stays on Phuket, while British retirees lounge around Pattaya or Chiang Mai. And now a new kind of visitor is discovering the country; the biggest market shift in recent years has been the rise of the Chinese tourist, with 2.27 million Chinese arrivals in the first six months of this year — more than any other nation.

In other words, families, retirees, students and sex tourists all have their own niches to frequent. “Despite its significant flaws, Thailand remains an accepting culture of divergent nationalities, people of all sexual orientation, and so on, and this has helped it compete against some of its more conservative neighbors,” Stuart McDonald, founder of, an online tourist guide to Southeast Asia, tells TIME. So while Koh Samet struggles to clean up its oily sand, the party isn’t going to be on hold for very long.

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An earlier version of this article quoted the Thai government website’s figure that 90 billion sq km of land was flooded in 2011. The correct figure is 90,000 sq km.