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Khao Sok diving ban maybe lifted

Legacy Phuket Gazette

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PHUKET: In a knee-jerk reaction, national park officers enforced a ban on all diving in the Chio Lan Reservoir, the center piece to the extraordinary Khao Sok National Park, following the death of two experienced cave divers in a diving accident on technical rebreathers last year (story here).

However, the ban might not last, Khao Sok National Park Chief Chaichana Wichaidit told the Phuket Gazette last week.

Within the diving industry, the deaths of Phuket divers Dmitry Dokuchave, 46, and fellow Russian national Alexander Solomatin are most often labeled as ‘diver error’, though it is still not known exactly what transpired about 20 meters below the surface of the lake last December. Nonetheless, their deaths directly led to the enforcement of a ban on all diving in the lake.

Despite the dive communities in the region regularly using the area, it has always been illegal, Mr Chaichana explained. However, the park chief has since put forward a proposal to the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) requesting six dive sites in the lake be opened to the general public.

Officers from Bangkok have already inspected the sites once, but have yet to give Mr Chaichana an indication of whether or not his request will be approved.

The sites were named as: Tham Long, Khlong Om, depth 25 meters; Khao Ta Chae, Khlong Long, depth 40m; in front of Pae Plern Prai, Khlong Long, depth 20m; Chom Plern Cliff, Khlong Long, depth 22m; Tham Khang Khao, Khlong Mon, depth 25m and Tham Klorng, Khlong Mon, depth 20m.

“They have to consider whether or not the diving is safe. Also, they have to ensure that the diving will not negatively affect the park’s natural resources,” Mr Chaichana explained.

The beauty of the Khao Sok, above and below the water, is indeed something to be cherished and preserved. The multitude of cave systems carved out of the karst topography of the looming limestone walls blanketed with jungle flora, as well as the dynamic underwater landscape, is exactly what has drawn divers to the man-made lake year after year.

“There are amazing stalactites and stalagmites in the caves, as they used to be dry caves. The whole experience: long tail boat, staying on the lake in the floating accommodation, waking up to the sounds of animals instead of traffic, great local people and great food all create an extraordinary experience for divers,” Simone Reynolds of Blue Label Diving explained.

Yet, perhaps like Phuket itself, it is not only the beauty of the location, but the accessibility that make the sites so important to dive companies in Phuket and essential to those in Khao Lak.

Those most affected by the closure were diving companies specializing in technical diving, perhaps about 15 in Thailand, as well as companies based in Khao Lak, as they are unable to access the Similians during the ‘Green Season’.

“For us, Khao Sok is a very important dive site, and I know this is true for a lot of other dive shops in our area,” explained Melanie Andriolo of Sea Turtle Divers in Khao Lak. “Our main business is trips to the Similan and Surin islands, but we also need other dive sites to bring customers in.

“The closing of Khao Sok hurt our business a lot. We can’t sell the trips and have had many customers tell us how disappointed they are to find out the national park is closed to diving.”

Khao Sok was the only lake large enough and wide enough in Thailand for recreational divers to visit as an alternative to the ocean. Though there are other options for tech and cave divers in southern Thailand, most of them are not ideal and end up being a completely different experience.

“The tech market is small, but its growing. On a yearly basis, we run at least two cave diving trips per month with about two people,” said Ms Reynolds.

“All recreational divers are potential technical divers. However, Thailand’s cave diving locations, such as Khao Sok, are not only for the tech divers. The recreational divers love to see something new as well.”

The sites are not all geared toward tech divers, as limestone tufas and other rock formations present an otherworldly underwater landscape for beginners taking part in wall dives, while more experienced divers can work toward their cave diving certifications in the multitude of caverns hidden below the lake’s tranquil surface.

“More and more people are finding out that Thailand has caves that can be dived,” said Ms Reynolds.

Major markets for Thailand’s cave diving include upmarket nationalities, such as New Zealand, Australia and Singapore, as well as the domestic market. The draw isn’t just the quality of diving, but the convenience of the location, especially when compared to the two most famous cave diving destinations in the world: Mexico and Florida.

“The limestone ridge, stretching throughout southern Thailand is very old and has acidic water from the rainforest above, which has carved enormous, mostly unexplored tunnels. Because of the limestone, Thailand has over 2,000 caves, both wet and dry. Today, less than 10 per cent of these are known,” says seasoned Thailand cave diver Ben Reymenants of Blue Label Diving.

However, when it comes to easy access to submerged caves in Thailand, Khao Sok was second to none, with an entire infrastructure for transportation, accommodation and dining already in place. At this point, divers around the world, local dive shops and Mr Chaichana himself will have to wait with bated breath for the final decision by the DNP.

— Isaac Stone Simonelli

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Archiving articles from the Phuket Gazette circa 1998 - 2017. View the Phuket Gazette online archive and Digital Gazette PDF Prints.

Phuket

4 billion baht medical hub planned for Phuket

Maya Taylor

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4 billion baht medical hub planned for Phuket | The Thaiger
Mai Khao beach in north Phuket. PHOTO: Booking.com

Phuket officials are setting aside around 4 billion baht to transform medical tourism in the southern province of Phuket, by developing a state-of-the-art treatment hub in the north of the island. The Bangkok Post reports that the Treasury department is planning to give the Public Health Ministry permission to use 141 rai of government land in the sub-district of Mai Khao, close to Phuket International Airport. It’s not the first time the proposal has come to light.

The concept is gathering support as Phuket battles to diversify its attraction beyond a tropical holiday island.

The aim is to develop Phuket as a world-class health and wellness destination, with facilities that will attract medical tourists from all over the world, as well as providing a high standard of treatment to the local population. It’s understood the facility will provide a full range of health services, including long-term care, and hospice and rehabilitation services.

The island already has a well-developed medical tourism market, but has been based around local hospitals and clinics linking up with foreign marketing companies in the past. “The International Medical and Public Health Service” has been conceived to create more long term financial security and diversification, and value-added tourism in Phuket, as the island has taken a heavy financial hit over the past 7 months.

4 billion baht medical hub planned for Phuket | News by The Thaiger

PHOTO: Phuket Andaman News

The plan was first suggested in 2017, by then governor, Noraphat Plodthong and confirmed by the director of Phuket’s Vachira Hospital, Dr. Chalermpong Sukontapol, in July. At that stage, the estimated budget was 3-4 billion baht. The director-general of the Treasury department, Yuthana Yimkarun, says the plot is being offered to the Health Ministry for free. The land is thought be worth around 1 billion baht.

Yuthana says the ministry will manage investment, with approximately 2 billion baht required for the first stage of the project. Construction of the facility is expected to be completed over 2 years.

Meanwhile, it’s understood that unused government land that is currently managed by various government agencies may be moved under the remit of central government, with a view to increasing its worth. According to the Bangkok Post report, just 4% of government land is directly managed by the Treasury. The other 96% is controlled by various government agencies. Yuthana says the plan is to increase the percentage of state-owned land under the Treasury’s management to 10% within 2 years.

SOURCE: Bangkok Post

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Coronavirus (Covid-19)

“Open the borders, safely”, Bill Heinecke, Minor International interview – VIDEO

The Thaiger

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“Open the borders, safely”, Bill Heinecke, Minor International interview – VIDEO | The Thaiger

Bill Heinecke speaks to Bill Barnett. The two heavy-hitters of Thailand’s hotel and hospitality sector, mull over the current Covid situation and the reopening of Thailand’s borders to some form of tourism. Bill Heinecke is the Chairman and Founder of Minor International.

Bill Barnett is the Managing Director of c9hotelworks.com

Now the Thai government has approved the special long-term tourist visa scheme (STV), hoteliers are remaining skeptical about reopening due to the lack of clarity in the recent announcement, which will reportedly take effect next month. The president of the Thai Hotels Association’s southern chapter says more hoteliers will consider reopening if the government gives further information about the plan in terms of prospective markets, arrival dates, origin countries, and flights.

Such details would allow hotels to prepare themselves ahead of time to offer services as alternative state quarantine premises as at least 60 hotels in Phuket are awaiting approval to operate such facilities.

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Bangkok

Now they’re coming… Special Tourist Visa flight set for Tuesday – Tourism and Sports Minister

Caitlin Ashworth

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Now they’re coming… Special Tourist Visa flight set for Tuesday – Tourism and Sports Minister | The Thaiger
PHOTO: Unsplash: Suhyeon Choi

After much confusion and a few apparent ‘misunderstandings’, Chinese tourists on the Special Tourist Visa will actually arrive on October 20 and 26. At least that’s what Tourism and Sports Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn says, according to the Bangkok Post. The first group is said to arrive 4 days from now in Bangkok (if they actually applied for the visa this time).

Reports circulated for weeks about a flight of 120 to 150 tourists set to arrive in Phuket on October 8 from Guangzhou, China. An announcement was made shortly after the flight was due to arrive with Tourism Authority Governor Yuthasak Supasorn saying “administrative issues” had caused the delay.

It was later reported that no one from Guangzhou had actually applied for the visa and it was all just a misunderstanding after the Tourism Authority of Thailand reportedly passed off a list of those “interested” in the visa as actual applications.

This time, the Post is reporting the first group of 120 tourists from Guangzhou will arrive at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport on Tuesday. Another group of 120 tourists, also from Guangzhou, will arrive on October 26, but the Post didn’t say where that flight will land.

It’s apparently the same group that was planned to arrive in Phuket on October 8, but the minister claims the trip was postponed due to the Vegetarian Festival which is planned to run until October 25. Both the Phuket governor and National Security Council secretary general had claimed the festival was the reason for the delayed flight and was intended to ease fears of Covid-19 for the festival-goers coming in from the rest of Thailand.

Even though the new long stay tourist visa is good for 90 days, and can be renewed twice, the tourists will only stay in the country for 30 days, with 14 of those days in quarantine. Phiphat says the Tourism Authority of Thailand will find activities to keep the tourists occupied while in quarantine.

The visitors will be the first international tourists after a 6 month ban to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Thai officials have been discussing plans for months about how to safely reopen borders to revive the country’s economy which is heavily driven by the tourism industry. Officals are now talking about cutting down the mandatory time for quarantine from 14 days to 7 days to help entice people to visit.

SOURCE: Bangkok Post

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