This week I have read quite a few reports of an oil spill near the Thai resort island of Ko Samet (Ko meaning island in Thai). Although as far as oil spills are concerned, it is not a huge one (13,200 gallons of black crude, apparently ), the location of the spill managed to be near the city of Bangkok and the resort islands that lie just south of Thailand’s capital in the Gulf of Thailand. For all of the hopes that the oil will not spread to the most popular beaches on the east coast of the island or that it will not spread to the mainland, and for all the hopes that the cleanup will be finished in three days, there is concern that this disaster will have serious effects on the tourism of that island, which draws a million foreign and domestic tourists each year to the normally white sands of that island.
Unfortunately, my limited funds did not allow me the chance to visit Ko Samet during my time in Thailand, but I did have a similar experience a few years ago with the problems of an oil spill and sands. As it happened, in 2010 I lived in Central Florida, and off the Gulf Coast that year there was a massive environmental disaster where an explosion in deepwater happened underneath an oil platform, causing oil to travel in an arc from the Louisiana bayous to the sands of Florida’s redneck riviera, not very far away from me. As it happened, that particular year finances forced me to stay close to home for the Feast of Tabernacles, which meant the threat of possible environmental damage in Panama City Beach, where my family and I were going. Fortunately, the sands had been cleaned up by that time, but it was a concern for months that there would be lasting damage there.
Oil (and its close cousin natural gas) is one of those necessary lubricants of contemporary life that tends to cause trouble wherever it goes. All too often, hydrocarbons are found in corrupt nations, creating a massive amount of wealth that all too often is concentrated in a few hands, depending on skilled labor from developed countries and a large amount of unskilled labor from less developed nations, and creating immense social friction even as it provides the promise of greater wealth for those nations where it is found. While some oil field are found in lands where few people go or would care to go, at other times it happens to exist in commercially viable amounts near where there is already a great deal of tourism, as is the case in the Gulf Coast of the United States as well as Ko Samet in Thailand. Other places where oil is found, like the Niger River delta of Nigeria or the island of Bioko (part of Equitorial Guinea) nearby, would probably be more heavily seen were they better known or safer to travel in, given their natural beauty.
Oil and tourism make uneasy allies, though. All too often, both depend on some level of exploitation, as oil wealth depends on tapping the remains of long-dead life for present comfort and prosperity. Given our dependence on the substance, we ought not to begrudge its legitimacy or seek to deny its importance, but rather we ought to be honest and up front about the matter. Likewise, tourism often depends on an exploitation of a land or its people, whether that is the natural beauty of a land, its historical treasures being turned into museums, or the customs of its people being viewed as particularly quaint or attractive. Given that very close to where I live is a place called “Cracker Country” that markets itself as a view of lower-class post-civil war life for poor white folk (can you imagine a place called N**** Country being allowed to exist in this day and age, much less as a place to educate children?), I am familiar with the exploitation of tourism perhaps better than most, on both the side of the tourist and the local whose regional culture is being set up for ridicule and abuse.
Despite these similarities, though, the fact remains that oil exploration is very hazardous to tourism, given that if anything goes wrong in an oil pipeline or offshore platform, that oil will find its ways into the azure waters or white sands of nearby tourist areas, threatening the livelihoods of many not only by environmental destruction but also by driving away those who understandably want nothing to do with the black goop of crude oil resting where it ought not to be. All too often safety and reliability are not as high a priority as they ought to be where oil is being dealt with, with sometimes tragic consequences. Given the importance of preserving such natural beauty that we have not yet managed to destroy in our world, and of preserving the desirability of our tourism attractions that bring much needed (though often mixed) blessings and goodwill, we ought to be all the more resolved to make sure that we neither waste the oil we seek to take from the earth nor the environment around it that we depend on as well. Otherwise we will all continue to have great trouble in paradise.