Thailand: Saving a paradise beach from mass tourism | Environment | All topics, from climate change to conservation | DW

It’s easy to see why Maya Bay has captured the imagination of travelers.

Surrounded by towering limestone cliffs on an uninhabited island in Thailand’s Phi Phi Archipelago, the secluded cove with its white sand and turquoise water is the very image of paradise.

“It’s such a beautiful place. It’s the closest you can get if you envision a bay closed to anywhere in the world,” said Andrew Hewett, owner of a dive center on the larger island nearby. by Phi Phi Don.

Maya Bay is just one of dozens of idyllic beaches in Thailand. But it became known worldwide as the location where the 2000 film “The Beach”, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, was filmed.

Tourists flocked to the bay after the film’s release – to the detriment of the marine environment. At the height of its popularity, there were over 5,000 visitors per day. In mid-2018, overcrowding became so severe that authorities closed the beach.

Tourists skyrocket after ‘The Beach’ release with Leonardo DiCaprio

A diver establishes a floating rope at Maya Bay

The beach was cordoned off in mid-2018 to prevent boats from going further into the bay

The Maya Bay ecosystem under pressure

Tourist traffic has resulted in pollution from discarded garbage and damaged coastal vegetation. But the main problem was the speedboats carrying hordes of day trippers 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, only 8% of the coral cover remained, up from 70% 30 years ago.

He has been studying the Maya Bay area for decades, and it was one of the loudest voices calling for the beach to be closed. Originally supposed to last only a few months, the shutdown has been extended indefinitely to give the coral more time to recover.

Three women jump in the waves at Maya Bay as they pose for a photo

Many tourists come to Maya Bay hoping to take the perfect vacation photos

Black bags full of garbage on the sand at Maya Bay

People and boats coming into the area generated a large amount of waste

Hope for the corals of Maya Bay

Since 2018, dive teams have planted 20,000 coral fragments in the bay to help rehabilitate the reef.

“It grows really well,” Thamrongnawasawat told DW. “So we believe that Maya Bay will once again be one of the very good coral reefs in maybe 5 to 10 years.”

He says they hope to increase coral cover to 50% within a decade and to 60% in 15 to 20 years. New species have also been spotted since the closure, including black tip sharks that have returned to spawn.

What will change in Maya Bay?

Authorities plan to eventually reopen the bay to tourists, possibly as soon as the end of the year, but they have not yet announced a date. What is certain, however, is that visiting Maya Bay in the future will be a different experience than it used to be.

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

“Visitors will come in another way, so they will no longer touch Maya Bay,” former director of Thailand’s national parks department and now advisor told DW Songtam Suksawang.

The new pier built around the back of Maya Bay

In the future, visitors to Maya Bay will need to be dropped off at this pier at the back of the island …

A walk built around the trees on the island of Phi Phi Leh

… and can walk to the beach via this newly installed promenade

There will be a cap on the number of tourists at the beach and the length of their stay. Visitors will not be allowed to stray away from a newly constructed promenade and will need to book online in advance. Park rangers will also use the trunk’s digital radio and other surveillance systems to keep tabs on tour boats.

“If we can manage visitor behavior… we can conserve nature,” Suksawang said, adding that the measures were necessary “if we are to sustain Maya Bay in the long term for the next generation”.

Uplifting tale

Maya Bay is just one of the many spectacular places in the Phi Phi Islands. And its story could serve as a warning to other sites about the consequences of uncontrolled mass tourism.

“Local reefs can only handle a number of stressors,” said Hewett of the dive center, who is also a spokesperson for the Phi Phi Island Conservation and Preservation group. In the 27 years he has lived in the area, he says he has seen the number of tourists – and the speedboats bringing them in – ballooning. Without regulations, or some sort of quota system for the islands, he fears other pristine sites will suffer the same fate as Maya Bay.

“I think we have to look at something that controls and manages the number of people that come… if we are to allow the reefs to recover at a normal rate.”

Coral reefs damaged around the Phi Phi Islands

Traffic from tourist speedboats in and around the Phi Phi Islands has caused damage to local reefs

Andrew Hewett diving around the Phi Phi Islands

Andrew Hewett is also involved in coral restoration projects to restore reef health.

But he acknowledges that “there are a lot of people who will be very disappointed to do this because their businesses thrive on mass tourism.”

The dilemma of overtourism

The number of foreign visitors to Thailand has grown rapidly over the past two decades. In 2000, the country received 9.5 million international arrivals. In 2019, they were nearly 40 million. The largest share of foreign tourists comes from China – where the number of people able to afford a trip is only expected to increase as incomes rise – followed by Malaysia, then India, Korea. , Laos, Japan and Russia, based on 2019 data.

For popular destinations like the Phi Phi Islands, allowing the tourism-dependent economy to thrive while protecting the natural beauty that draws visitors in the first place can be a difficult balance to strike.

“We have to take care of nature, but we have to work with tourists for the long term. [Fewer people] will mean less money, but we will have a future, ”said Phumipat Phutthipanjapong of the Phi Phi Island Tourist Business Association.

The stakeholder group was created several years ago in the context of growing tourism in the islands. They organize regular beach cleanings to limit litter, monitor boat activity on the reefs, and work to boost recycling in hotels and restaurants.

But beyond sustainability issues, many Phi Phi companies are now more immediately affected by the battle to survive the shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

A more sustainable path for tourism?

According to Stefan Gössling, professor of sustainable tourism at the Swedish University of Lund, the pandemic could actually be an opportunity for the global tourism sector to set a more sustainable path. Popular destinations, in particular, he said, could avoid the problems of mass tourism by adopting business models focused on quality rather than quantity.

“We know you can attract specific types of tourists who might stay longer, who spend more, who are more interested in participating in local activities,” he said.

“All of a sudden you realize that with a few tourists you can probably do a lot more to have a much bigger economic impact locally than with lots and lots more tourists in any other scenario.”

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

The pandemic has been “positive for the health of marine life,” he said. “On the other side is business and people are in a rush to try and make money.

You can listen to the latest episode of On the Green Fence here.


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