Thai island of Samui weighs ‘White Lotus effect’ against environmental cost | Thailand

Along the beachfront on the Thai island of Samui, vendors are busy setting up tables covered with souvenirs and sunglasses. Staff stand outside massage shops and restaurants gesture to passersby, hoping to entice in tourists.

Soon, there could be even more customers passing through the area. The island is one of several locations that will feature in the third season of The White Lotus, a series so popular that its previous settings, Hawaii and Sicily, both saw surges in demand from travellers.

On Samui, filming has been taking place this year at the Four Seasons, a luxury five-star hotel surrounded by tropical forest and looking out over the Gulf of Thailand.

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

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

Will Sharpe, Aubrey Plaza, Meghann Fahy and Theo James in The White Lotus season two, filmed in Sicily. Photograph: PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy

But there is also unease among local environmentalists about how the island strikes a balance between its tourist numbers and the need to protect its natural resources.

Rapid development on Samui has already put intense pressure on the environment. The opening of luxury spa hotels and golf courses have drained the island of its water. Speedboats and noisy beach parties have scared away marine life. The development of new villas, at times in violation of building rules, has contributed to fears of landslides and flooding. The huge growth in footfall in Samui – through tourists visiting, and the workers who have moved to the island to serve them – has also generated enormous volumes of rubbish.

“The local authority and the local Samui community need to sit and really seriously talk about how we deal with it, [and how] to balance these things,” said Dr Kannapa Pongponrat Chieochan, an assistant professor at Thammasat University who is from the island and researchers sustainable development.

She said lessons should be learned from Maya Bay, which became one of the world’s most famous beaches after its starring role in the 2000 film The Beach. A huge number of visitors flocked to the site, polluting its waters and destroying its coral. The authorities eventually closed Maya Bay to tourists for more than three years, until it reopened with tighter controls in 2022.

The White Lotus effect on its locations has been significant. The first season, which was filmed at the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea in Hawaii, drove a 425% year-on-year increase in the hotel’s web 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 was fully booked for months. The cost of a villa at Four Seasons Samui this month starts at about £900 a night, not including a service charge, taxes and coral reef conservation fee.

Away from Samui’s white sandy beaches and pristine hotels is a stark symbol of the environmental cost of tourism: a mountain of rubbish weighing 150,000 tons. The landfill, which stews in the afternoon heat, emitting a putrid stench, began to accumulate after the island’s incinerator broke more than a decade ago, according to residents. Each day another 150 tons is added to the heap.

Samui’s mountain of rubbish, weighing 150,000 tons. Photograph: Rebecca Ratcliffe/The Guardian

Last year residents became so frustrated with the problem that they announced they would file a legal case against the municipality, the city mayor and the governor of Surat Thani for health threats posed by the landfill, which they said had contaminated groundwater wells in their village. They were unsuccessful in securing compensation.

Sutham Samthong, the deputy mayor of Samui, said the local authorities were in the process of moving the rubbish, and over the past three years 150,000 tons had already been shipped to the mainland – meaning the pile has been halved from 300,000 tons.

Sutham also said the authorities were taking steps to protect the environment, including by training hotel staff to educate tourists about respecting natural resources, raising awareness among local people about the need to separate waste, and by enforcing laws to control development.

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

The impact that tourism has had on Samui was underlined during the pandemic. There were fewer cars, there was less pollution, and sea turtles returned to lay eggs on the beaches of Samui, said Panithan.

The pandemic was an incredibly difficult time for local businesses, however, especially smaller vendors whose incomes disappeared overnight.

“Of course I want more tourists to come here so that we can make more business,” said Ruam Intachai, 65, who runs a small food shop near to the landfill. There were new developments and hotels being built, she said, and that was a positive thing if it brought more customers.

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

The growth in the island’s population is a challenge for waste management and water supply. Estimates from 1998 suggest Samui was receiving more than 700,000 people a year. 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.

A scene from The White Lotus season one, which was set in Hawaii. Photograph: HBO/Foxtel

Samui needs 30,000 cubic metres of water a day to supply all its residents and businesses. The majority, 24,000 cubic metres, is brought to the island through an underwater pipeline from Surat Thani on the mainland, but reservoir supplies are not sufficient to make up the shortfall. Sutham, the deputy mayor, said the government had promised a second pipeline, but “they haven’t specified the timeframe yet”.

Big hotels buy water privately but this is too expensive for residents. Many have bought tanks to store water when supplies are running low, or extract groundwater. Residents have reported being unable to shower at home for days, or having to use the toilets at a nearby temple because they have no water supply.

Anon Vatayanon, who owns a print shop in Samui and is an environmental activist, said there needed to be far greater emphasis on how to maintain the island’s sustainably. “Not just attract more people and use up our natural resources – no matter how convenient that might be or what we can achieve. Without natural resources – the sea, sand and sun, the unique selling point of Samui – nobody will come.”

Additional reporting by Pirada Anuwech

Related posts