By Amy Sawitta Lefevre
BANGKOK (Reuters) - An oil spill that has blackened beaches at a Thai holiday island was having an extreme impact on tourism and could spread to the coast of the mainland and affect the fishing industry, officials and an environmental group said on Tuesday.
Tourists were pouring off the island of Koh Samet, 230 km (142 miles) southeast of Bangkok, while soldiers and volunteers in white bio-hazard suits struggled to clear black oily sludge off the white sand.
"We're working to move visitors to other locations if they want to move," Tourism Minister Somsak Phurisisak told reporters.
"I'm very concerned, I didn't think this spill would impact tourism in such an extreme way."
About 50,000 liters of crude oil poured into the Gulf of Thailand from a pipeline on Saturday, about 20 km (12 miles) off the coast, the fourth major oil spill in Thai history.
The pipeline operator, PTT Global Chemical, apologized and said the leak had been plugged. The clean-up operation would take another two to three days, it said.
Worst hit was the beach at Ao Prao, or Coconut Bay, but tourists elsewhere on the island were getting out.
"We're staying on another beach but we're not taking any chances. We are checking out," Daria Volkov, a tourist from Moscow, told Reuters.
Koh Samet, known for its beaches and clear, warm sea, is thronged by domestic and foreign tourists, thanks to its proximity to Bangkok.
"Tourists are leaving, some have cancelled their bookings," said Chairat Trirattanajarasporn, chairman of the provincial tourist association.
"Samet is popular with Russian and Chinese tourists but they won't stay long if this mess isn't cleaned up."
Pakdihan Himathongkam, a government spokesman, said aircraft were releasing chemical dispersants over the 1 km (half a mile) long oil slick, while Ao Prao beach was closed to the public.
"Our worry is that it could reach the mainland," Pakdihan said.
Environmental groups raised questions about the true extent of the disaster.
"What has happened is far more serious than what PTT said on the first day. We can expect an impact on fisheries and from chemical contamination in the food chain," Ply Pirom, programme manager at Greenpeace Southeast Asia, told Reuters.
PTT Global Chemical Pcl is part of state-controlled PTT Pcl, Thailand's biggest energy firm.
Another subsidiary, PTT Exploration and Production Pcl, was involved in Australia's worst offshore drilling accident in 2009, when thousands of gallons of crude oil spewed into the sea after a damaged oil well blew up.
The slick from the Montara oil field off Australia's northwest coast spread as far as Indonesian waters. An Australian government inquiry blamed the spill on systemic shortcomings at the Thai oil giant.
(Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak and Athit Perawongmetha; Editing by Robert Birsel)