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Rampant Destruction of the Landscape

Phuket has clearly been a lush green tropical island, but everywhere I look I see rampant destruction of the landscape to make way for new housing developments. It seems any development that doesn't sell homes in the millions of Baht doesn’t leave one tree standing on the original property and builds the houses like rabbit warrens, cheek to open-windowed cheek. Indeed, I've even seen a development where the houses sell for 16 million Baht -- huge picture windows, verandas, all marble & teak, etc. -- smack up against their neighboring millionaire! And the only trees you can see are across the bay! Can you explain why?

Your point is very valid, particularly when you consider that tourism is Phuket’s biggest source of income and the tourists are primarily attracted by the green forested and unspoiled Phuket that you, I and doubtless most of the Gazettes readers, clearly value.

Arguments such as this are however rarely as simple as they might as first appear. I have heard it claimed by some developers that their Thai customers don’t actually like trees surrounding their new houses, although my experience would suggest the contrary. My belief, ironic as it may be, is that it is precisely the green forested charm of Phuket, which makes it such a popular tourist destination, that is to a large degree responsible for the present damage.

Tourism, both through direct employment and that needed for the necessary infrastructure development is a big employer of labour and has required large migration of people to Phuket from the other provinces of Thailand. It is then, the combination of this new migration to Phuket in conjunction with growing local incomes that is the driving force (coupled of course with an ever optimistic local entrepreneurial spirit) that is behind the new low and medium cost housing developments that are springing up around the island, which you correctly note are distinctly lacking in vegetation.

The topography of an island together with strong tourist growth has also been responsible for the high and ever rising price of land. Combine these factors, high land prices and a fast growing population with limited (but growing) budgets and the result is, unfortunately, lots of new very high density housing.

House plot sizes in the range 50 to 250 Square meters are unfortunately all that the average new home owner can afford - a size which allows very little privacy or space for gardens, let alone the luxury of leaving trees in situ and building around them. Interestingly, even with these very small plot sizes, land cost as a percentage of total housing cost is greater in Phuket than in most sub-urban areas of the USA. or Australia.

For better or worse, one of the classic methods too retain green areas in lower cost residential development, the construction of high rise buildings, is outlawed in Phuket. Well meaning as this ban is, it will probably do more to speed the urbanization of Phuket than had it nor been enacted. In my view a measure that would help preserve the green areas (or at least give the space to allow trees to be replanted in new developments) would be a new zoning law to limit construction density (rather than height), but such a move is likely to be unpopular (at least in the short run) because it would push down land values.

To conclude on a positive note, I don’t believe the damages is irreparable, trees and plants do grow remarkably fast here, (as in Singapore - a garden city if ever there was one) and with a growing local awareness that environmental protection actually makes good business sense, I do believe that the coming years will see the greening over of many of the current scars and the development of policies and attitudes the foster greener development.