A small victory for heritage and cultural value

opinion September 06, 2012 00:00

By The Nation

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Abandonment of a high-rise hotel project in an area of historical significance should be celebrated amid the onslaught by developers


Finally, an investor who planned to construct a high-rise hotel in the venerable district of Amphawa has decided to suspend the plan, amid criticism from locals and conservation activists.
The tearful millionaire Choochai Chairitlert said during a press conference earlier this week that he had decided to drop the plan to demolish century-old wooden shophouses for the construction of a luxury hotel. This despite the fact that Choochai had already spent several million baht on the project called Choochai Buri Sri Amphawa.
The construction of the building was already underway when the criticism became more vocal and the media gave the issue wider publicity. This pressure has put the project on hold, at least for the moment. 
Conflicts between investors and conservationists are an ongoing problem, especially when the rules covering city planning are so unclear, and in many cases non-existent. There is also the issue of whether local residents are doing enough to protect their communities in face of an onslaught by property developers. 
Choochai is not necessarily the villain in this case. Any sane investor would want to cash in on the booming tourism business in Amphawa. He did not force local people to sell their property; the transactions were a result of the universal rule of the market system. Choochai wanted to construct a high-rise to accommodate as many visitors as he could in the limited space.
Amphawa has become an attractive location for investment due to the tourism boom in the area over the past few years. The district was known for its waterfront community, which has existed there for more than a century. The environment was so peaceful that it was a favourite habitat of fireflies. 
But even before Choochai’s project, the fireflies had long disappeared from Amphawa due to the crowds of tourists and the absence of district planning management. 
What has happened in Amphawa is no different from that in other places such as Pai or Suan Pung where new hotels and resorts have replaced the traditional lifestyle and rural landscape.
What Choochai had proposed was in accordance with the demand and supply of the market. The previous residents apparently did not mind selling out their old properties. Choochai was, however, forced to change his plan after the media reported that the old wooden houses were to be demolished.
Choochai Buri Sri Amphawa is not an isolated case. Many new tourist developments in Thailand are being undertaken with opportunistic zeal in the absence of planning regulations and urban development management. The responsible government agencies are either too slow to act or too lax in setting the rules for developing tourism destinations, not least in ensuring that new architecture blends well with the existing surroundings.
The problem is that local residents in many places do not form a forceful, unified voice to protect their communities as investors move in and irrevocably change the environment and landscape. 
In the Amphawa case, if the residents there feel that a high-rise development does not fit in with the existing community, they should push for the speedy passage new city-planning regulations. One danger is in the lapse between expired regulations and new ones not yet promulgated. These windows of opportunity are when predatory developers move in while local people do not have the protection of the law behind them. 
This incident should be a case study for future policy direction covering the development of tourist destinations. People like to say that the charm of a particular tourist destination lies in its old culture and tradition. But in reality, many tourist destinations have become polluted with irresponsible developments that destroy the heritage of the area. Most developers do not understand that there is long-term value in leaving places of historical interest intact, that they become attractions in themselves if they are preserved in their original form.
Choochai’s botched project reflects the desperation of people who wish to protect places of historical and cultural interest from the ravages of unplanned and uncontrolled development.