Thai officials and ecologists hope a recent decision to keep the country’s most iconic beach closed for another two years will prove a cautionary tale and example for other sites in the region grappling with the environmental fallout of mass tourism.
“I think that we’re going to see more and more of it, not just around Southeast Asia, but around the world. I think that it will definitely become a trend,” said Mark Erdmann, vice president of Asia Pacific marine programs for Conservation International.
Thailand’s National Parks Department announced the extended closure earlier this month in a move to give the ravaged coral reefs of Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh island, just off the country’s west coast, more time to recover.
The department closed the beach nearly a year ago and has been busy replanting the reefs since. The added time will also give authorities the chance to work out the details of a plan to preserve the picture-postcard bay for posterity.
For the band of rakish drifters in the 2000 Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach, little-known Maya Bay was their Shangri-La, a secluded strip of snow-white sand and tepid turquoise waters hemmed in by a towering ring of verdant limestone cliffs, a pristine paradise all their own.
But just as for the movie’s misfits, it would not last long. The bay’s star turn put it squarely on the tourist map. Dozens of daily visitors soon became hundreds, and hundreds became thousands. By the time the government closed it off, about 5,000 people were visiting the tiny cove each day, more than twice what researchers said it could handle.
With the explosion in visitor numbers came a financial bonanza for both the government and local tour operators running day-trips to the uninhabited island by boat. Parks Department Director Songtam Suksawang said the marine park encompassing Phi Phi Leh was pulling in nearly a quarter of the annual 2.5 billion baht ($78.66 million) being generated by all of Thailand’s 154 national parks.
But the bay’s blessing was also its curse.
With those numbers came an ecological calamity. The daily fleet of boats beaching at Maya Bay and the thousands of sun-seekers they disgorged had brought the local ecosystem to near-collapse. Some 90 percent of the coral had died off, Songtam said, taking most of the other marine life they sustained with them.
In June 2018, after consulting with experts, the Parks Department decided that only drastic measures would let it save what was left and make it possible to recover what was lost.