The Thai island of Samui is weighing the ‘White Lotus effect’ against the environmental costs

Along the beach of the Thai island of Samui, vendors are busy setting up tables covered with souvenirs and sunglasses. Employees stand outside massage shops and restaurants gesturing to passersby, hoping to attract tourists.

More customers could soon come through the area. The island is one of several locations that will be featured in the third season of The White Lotus, a series so popular that its previous locations, Hawaii and Sicily, both saw high demand from travelers.

This year, filming on Samui will take place at the Four Seasons, a luxury five-star hotel surrounded by tropical forest and overlooking the Gulf of Thailand.

Related: While Thailand enjoys the water fights in Songkran, the tourist center of Samui suffers from drought

A crew has been spotted on the island, with one restaurant owner posting Instagram photos with actors Walton Goggins, Aimee Lou Wood and Francesca Corney after they visited for dinner. Online fans – especially those of Thai singer Lisa Manobal, of K-pop group Blackpink – have been sharing updates on where the filming is taking place.

For an island that relies heavily on tourism as its main industry, any increase in visitors is welcomed by local businesses. Sawan Haatongchai, 43, who works at a massage shop in Samui’s Fishing Village, said tourist numbers had recovered after the pandemic. “But their purchasing power seems to be less. There is a different atmosphere, different customs,” he said. Promotion of The White Lotus will help, he thinks.

But there is also concern among local environmentalists about how the island is balancing the number of tourists with the need to protect its natural resources.

Rapid development on Samui has already placed enormous pressure on the environment. The opening of luxury spa hotels and golf courses have dried up the island’s water. Speedboats and noisy beach parties have chased away marine life. The development of new villas, which sometimes violate building regulations, has contributed to fears of landslides and flooding. The huge increase in the number of visitors to Samui – from the tourists visiting the island and the workers moving to the island to serve them – has also generated enormous amounts of waste.

“The local government and the local Samui community need to sit down and have a really serious talk about how we deal with this. [and how] to balance these things,” said Dr. Kannapa Pongponrat Chieochan, an assistant professor at Thammasat University who is from the island and researches sustainable development.

She said lessons should be learned from Maya Bay, which became one of the most famous beaches in the world after its starring role in the 2000 film The Beach. Large numbers of visitors flocked to the site, polluting the water and destroying the coral destroyed. Authorities eventually closed Maya Bay to tourists for more than three years, until it reopened in 2022 with stricter controls.

The effect of the White Lotus on the locations was significant. The first season, which was filmed at the Four Seasons Resort Maui in Wailea, Hawaii, saw a 425% year-over-year increase in the hotel’s internet traffic, according to reports. Sicily, which featured in season two, also saw a surge in demand. San Domenico Palace, a former monastery overlooking the sea that starred in the series, reported that it had been fully booked for months. The cost of a villa at Four Seasons Samui starts this month at around £900 per night, excluding service charges, taxes and coral reef conservation fees.

Far away from the white-sand beaches and pristine hotels of Samui stands a clear symbol of the environmental costs of tourism: a 150,000-ton mountain of waste. The dump, which boils in the midday heat and emits a putrid stench, began piling up after the island’s incinerator broke down more than a decade ago, residents said. Another 150 tons are added to the pile every day.

Last year, residents became so frustrated with the problem that they announced they would file a lawsuit against the municipality, mayor and governor of Surat Thani over health threats caused by the dump, which they said had contaminated groundwater wells in their village. They failed to obtain compensation.

Sutham Samthong, Samui’s deputy mayor, said local authorities were moving the waste, and that 150,000 tonnes had already been shipped to the mainland in the past three years – meaning the pile had been halved from 300,000 tonnes.

Sutham also said authorities are taking steps to protect the environment, including by training hotel staff to educate tourists on respecting natural resources, raising awareness among locals about the need to separate waste and passing laws to enforce to control development.

But Panithan Boonsa, chairman of the Samui Local Tourism Association, who helped coordinate the legal action, said there was an imbalance between the island’s finite resources and the development of new resorts. “It should really slow down,” he said.

The impact tourism has had on Samui has been highlighted during the pandemic. There were fewer cars, less pollution and sea turtles returned to lay eggs on Samui’s beaches, Panithan said.

However, the pandemic has been an incredibly difficult time for local businesses, especially smaller vendors whose revenue disappeared overnight.

“Of course I want more tourists to come here so we can do more business,” said Ruam Intachai, 65, who runs a small grocery store near the dump. New developments and hotels were being built, she said, and that was a positive if it brought in more customers.

‘Without sea, sand and sun, no one will come’

The island’s population growth poses a challenge to waste management and water supply. Estimates from 1998 suggest that Samui received more than 700,000 people annually. In 2023, the number of tourist arrivals at Samui Airport reached 2.2 million. In addition, there are now 70,000 local people and 200,000 people come to Samui for work.

Samui needs 30,000 cubic meters of water per day to supply all its residents and businesses. The largest part, 24,000 cubic meters, is brought to the island via an underwater pipeline from Surat Thani on the mainland, but the supply from the reservoirs is not enough to make up the shortfall. Sutham, the deputy mayor, said the government had promised a second pipeline, but “they haven’t specified the time frame yet.”

Large hotels purchase water privately, but this is too expensive for the residents. Many have purchased tanks to store water when supplies run low or to tap groundwater. Residents report being unable to shower at home for days, or having to use the toilets of a nearby temple because they have no water supply.

Anon Vatayanon, a printing company owner in Samui and environmentalist, said much more emphasis needed to be placed on how to sustainably maintain the island. “Not just attracting more people and depleting our natural resources – no matter how useful that is or what we can achieve. Without natural resources – the sea, the sand and the sun, Samui’s unique selling point – no one will come.”

Additional reporting by Pirada Anuwech

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