The Royal Thai Navy has dealt a body blow to Pattaya’s scuba diving industry, closing off the area’s best dive sites to protect coral reefs.
About 20 owners for Thai- and foreign-owned dive shops met March 23 at the Ocean Marina Yacht Club to discuss the ban on diving at Pattaya’s “Far Islands” and two dozen other small sites around Pattaya and Sattahip bays.
The dive operators worked out the text of a letter they planned to submit to the Tourist Authority of Thailand, explaining that the navy’s action could deal a fatal blow to many of their businesses and drive thousands of tourists away from the city.
“Around Pattaya we have forty beautiful islands but, unfortunately, a lot of them are restricted by the Royal Thai Navy,” said yacht club Harbormaster Scott Finsten. “We can get high-quality luxury tourists to come to Pattaya, but we need access to these islands or many businesses will be drastically affected.”
Scuba diving in Pattaya is centered around three areas: the Near Islands of Koh Larn, Koh Sak and Koh Krok; the Far Islands of Koh Rin, Koh Man Wichai and Koh Phai; and Sattahip Bay off Samae San.
The Far Islands, which also include smaller isles that are infrequently used, offer by far the best diving in Pattaya. Located a 90-minute ride from Pattaya, the islands themselves are uninhabited and their waters are not used for non-diving watersports or sea-walking. The waters are clearer with visibility up to 20 meters on good days.
The navy, in fact, intentionally sunk the HTMS Khram landing ship off Koh Phai in 26 meters of water just for divers.
Diving off the Near Islands offers no comparison. The waters are muddled, with visibility averaging five meters or less. Dive sites are overrun and overfished.
The sites there have only two advantages: They’re only 40 minutes from Pattaya and have currents appropriate for beginning divers.
“Our customers want to go to the Far Islands and now we cannot offer that service,” said David Wright, owner of the Pattaya Dive Center, one of Pattaya’s longest-established dive shops. “If someone wants to dive for four or five days whilst on holiday in Thailand, we can only offer them three islands and they simply have too much boat traffic, which makes it unsafe for divers.”
“Our customers love to dive at Koh Rin. It has beautiful coral with clear waters and the best marine life in the area. We have had no explanation why these restrictions have been put in place and we do not know what will happen in the future,” he said.
While the navy may not have officially explained to the dive operators the reason for the Far Islands ban, every long-time Pattaya scuba diver knows why: Reckless Thai and Russian tourist-boat operators.
In recent years, some tour operators built bamboo sunshades for tourists on Koh Rin, which always has been off limits to people, as it is shelled regularly during Royal Thai Navy firing exercises. Russian tourists frequently sunbathe nude, leave trash behind and destroy the environment there.
Thai operators, including some unlicensed dive operators, long have been blamed for overloading dive sites with Russian tourists, throwing trash into the sea and using coral reefs to anchor their boats.
The navy finally got serious about enforcing its Far Islands prohibitions but went further by outlawing divers from even using waters off the coast.
The dive shop operators find it tragically ironic since scuba divers are perhaps the most-ardent protectors and supporters of the marine environment. PADI, the largest dive-certification agency in the world, offers full environmental courses and special certifications for “green” shops. Pattaya dive shops also regularly run beach and reef cleanups.
For Pattaya dive shops dependent on foreign tourists – especially westerners – the ban could be the final push that sends them into bankruptcy.
Dive shops aimed at western tourists have struggled badly in the past five years as the percentage of Americans, Brits and Aussies visiting Pattaya has plummeted. Many, including British-American-run Aquanauts Dive Centre, once Pattaya’s biggest, went out of business.
Russian dive shops, which boomed from 2010-2015 with some shops sending out six boats a day, also hit the rocks after the collapse of the Russian ruble.
The change in Pattaya’s visitor demographics has been catastrophic for foreign dive shops, as the hordes of Chinese and Asian tourists choose to ride banana boats or walk on the sea floor instead of dive.
With Pattaya’s best dive sites now closed, serious divers likely will skip Pattaya for the Andaman Sea and Koh Tao, operators said.