The ubiquitous long tail boat. A symbol of seafaring throughout South-East Asia, the boat is used as widely today as in years' past. However, where once oarsmen propelled these means of transport through the water, today things are a little different. Ask any tourist to Phuket, Halong Bay, or Inle Lake and they are bound to associate the long boat with one thing: noise.
This week I'm writing to you all from beautiful Koh Phi Phi, Thailand. This paradise of an island, surrounded by azure waters and limestone cliffs, belies a dirty little secret. In all honesty, there are many dirty little secrets the tourism board would rather keep to themselves. The most obtuse are these boats. Without roads to get around, long tails are the only means of transportation. If you've never been, let's paint a picture.
You wake up early in the morning and hop down to the beach to enjoy a beautiful sunrise. Maybe you take a quick dip in the water to cool off from the already blazing heat. Piercing the peaceful lapping of waves along the shore is the rung-rung-rung of an engine starting. Out of the back of these engines, mostly salvaged from decommissioned diesel trucks, a plume of black smoke paints the sky. Then you taste it, gasoline in the water. It's like a feast for all the senses, just not in the same way as a delicious plate of pad thai.
We're not talking about a couple of boats mucking things up, either. Hundreds of long tails dart about through the surrounding waters at all hours of the day. These are largely unregistered and unmonitored. Because of that, data on their emissions is impossible to identify. It doesn't take Hans Rossling, though, to figure out just how damaging these things are.
No matter how much issue one takes with these highly polluting boats, what is a tourist to do? Eco-friendly tour operators do use electric engines in some of their boats, but these are few and far between. What's more, simple economics make the long tail the better financial decision.
With increasing fuel costs, perhaps there is someone out there thinking about a better way forward. Small local initiatives, including electric and solar-powered boats, have met with little success. Although the Thai Ministry of Environment offers subsidies for such innovations, not much seems to be coming out of their endeavors. Perhaps this is because the cost of the boat itself is now 70 times higher than a decade ago. The $6,000 price tag is well above one's annual salary of around $4,000. This means there is little wiggle room to spend on innovation for Mother Earth.
I know I should be offering some sort of solution here. Unfortunately, I'm at a loss. I'd love to crowdsource some thoughts from all of you. It's confronting to see such a big issue going unresolved. Let's see how we can help.