PHUKET: The good news is that the discriminatory fee system for entry into the Similan and Surin National Parks has been abolished. Thais and foreigners will pay the same fee. The bad news is that, from November 15, the entry fee for all divers will be 200 baht. And on top of that they must also pay a user fee of 200 baht per day, with the result that a four-day diving trip to one of the two parks will now cost 1,000 baht in fees. The new fees were decided at a meeting of chiefs of national parks in southern Thailand on October 12, and have come under heavy fire from dive operators, who collectively face having to cough up millions of baht, which they are unlikely to be able to recover from their customers who have already booked and paid for diving vacations. Explaining the new user fee, Polphut Bualoi, Chief of Sirinath National Park, said, “The new user-pays fee is simple. Diving is a very profitable business, and divers use more national park resources than other visitors. “The new fee is similar to those charged in other countries, such as at Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in Australia. Diving trips here cost between 4,000 and 20,000 baht. We decided to charge 5% of the lowest price, which came to 200 baht per person per day.” Alistair Beveridge, president of the Phuket Chapter of the Dive Operators’ Club of Thailand (DOCT), said, “Last year, we paid an outrageous 200 baht per foreign diver and 40 baht per Thai diver per trip. This year, we have to pay 1,000 baht per diver per four-day trip, for both Thais and foreigners. “The Similan Park representative told us that he still had 2.5 million baht left over from the 4.8 million baht collected last year, and that he needed ideas on how to spend it. This season, they want to take nearly 20 million baht from our customers. “What for? Improvements promised last year have yet to materialize. They promise everything, but not a single thing has been done. That’s what we’re angry about,” Mr Beveridge added. Defending the new fees, K. Polphut said, “We use the money for conservation projects such as protecting the coral from fishing boats and the research at Fantasy Reef, which has been closed to divers for about a year because much of it has been destroyed. We also need money for tourist facilities and safety equipment. “It’s long-term work. You may not see any changes quickly, but if these two parks end up being like the Phi Phi islands, then who is going to be blamed?” K. Polphut added. Vithaya Hongviengchan, chief of Similan National Park said “This is nothing new. We talked to dive operators last year and we gave them a year to prepare. I think most operators should be ready for this and incorporate the fee into their packages.” To this, Mr Beveridge responded, “How can we tell customers? We were told about this around a week ago. The customers are already on their way to Thailand. This should’ve happened six months ago. They should’ve sent us a fax or a letter. “The DOCT faxed the national parks requesting a meeting to talk about the fee three days ago, and there’s been no reply,” he added.
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