Thailand: Saving a Beach Paradise from Mass Tourism

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Thai authorities ‘ to protect its stressed marine ecosystem. The cove in “The Beach” had to be closed to the public after almost all its coral was destroyed.

It’s easy to see why travellers have been drawn to Maya Bay.

Surrounded by limestone cliffs, the secluded cove with turquoise water and white sand is a picture of paradise in Thailand’s Phi Phi archipelago.

It’s such a beautiful place. It’s the closest you could get if you were to envisage a bay closed off to everywhere in the world,

said Andrew Hewett, who owns a dive centre on the bigger neighbouring island of Phi Phi Don.

Maya Bay is just one of the dozens of idyllic beaches in Thailand. However, it has become world-famous as the location where Leonardo DiCaprio starred in the film “The Beach.”

After the release of the movie, tourists descended upon the bay, damaging the marine environment. At its peak, more than 5,000 people would come to the bay each day. By mid-2018, the overcrowding had reached such a level that the beach was closed.

The ecosystem of Maya Bay is in danger.

Tourist traffic led to environmental degradation due to litter left on beaches and damaged coastal vegetation. However, the main issue was the speedboats ferrying hordes of daytrippers into the bay and dropping their anchors on the coral below.

According to Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a marine biologist at Kasetsart University in Thailand, when the bay was closed, there were only 8% of the coral left, compared to 70% 30 years ago.

He studied the Maya Bay area for decades and was one of the loudest voices calling for the beach closed. Originally meant to last a few months, the closure has been extended indefinitely to give the coral a chance to recover.

A hope for corals in Maya Bay
Since 2018, dive teams have planted 20,000 coral fragments in the bay to encourage reef restoration.

“It’s growing very well,” Thamrongnawasawat told DW. “So we think that Maya Bay will return to be one of the excellent coral reefs in maybe 5 to 10 years.”

Eventually, he hopes to boost coral coverage to 50% within a decade and 60% within 15 to 20 years. Several new species have been spotted since the closure, including blacktip reef sharks that have returned to breed.

At Maya Bay, what will change?

The authorities plan to reopen the bay to tourists, perhaps later this year, but they haven’t announced a date yet. However, what is certain is that visiting Maya Bay in the future will be different than it used to be.

To protect corals, boats bringing tourists will be able to dock at a new pier on the opposite side of the island rather than on the beach.

“The visitors will come in another way, so they will not touch Maya Bay anymore,” Songtam Suksawang, the former director of Thailand’s national parks department and now an adviser to it, told us.

There will be a cap on the number of tourists at the beach and the length of time that they can stay. Visitors will not be permitted to leave a newly built boardwalk, and they must book online in advance. The park rangers will also use digital trunk radios and other monitoring systems to keep an eye on tour boats.

“If we can manage the behaviour of the visitors… we can conserve nature,” Suksawang said, adding that the measures were needed “if we want to sustain Maya Bay in the long run for the next generation.

There are many spectacular places in the Phi Phi Islands. And Maya Bay’s story could be a warning to other sites about the dangers of unchecked mass tourism.

The changes at Maya Bay are part of an effort to make tourism more sustainable in the long run, and it will likely take some time before visitor numbers reach pre-pandemic levels. But Hewett describes it as “wishful thinking” to expect local companies to put sustainability ahead of their own survival.

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