On World Environment Day, we look at the closure of Maya Bay and the dilemma between the need for conservation and the financial gains from tourism

Photo: Atipoj Srisukon

Leaves sway, sand sparkles as the Sun shines brightly over the blue-green water. The 300m-long white beach of Maya Bay looks quiet and serene. It's a strange sight: Not a single visitor in sight, not a sign or noise from the long-tail or speedboats that usually dump hordes of tourists on the curved beach.

"It is a scene no one has seen for 18 years," Worapoj Lomlim, chief of Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Koh Phi Phi National Park in Krabi, told Life on June 1. It was the first day that the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) implemented beach closures, barring all tourists from one of the country's most popular natural attractions. The closure will remain in place until Sept 30.

It is also the first time that visitors are prohibited from visiting the beach since it became part of Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Koh Phi Phi National Park in 1982, 36 years ago. During the peak season, over 5,000 tourists a day descend on the small strip of beach.

"Since our main duty is to protect our natural resources, we implemented the policy during the monsoon to let nature recover from tourism damage. We expect to close all access to Maya Bay every rainy season starting this year," he said.

Before Maya Bay becomes a victim of its own success, officials made a bold move to close it down. Usually, several natural parks in Thailand apply seasonal closure to allow nature to rest and revive. But the decision to close the bay and lose hundreds of millions of baht in tourism revenue -- at a time when tourism is a main engine of the economy, contributing nearly 18% of the national GDP -- is something quite unprecedented.

Maya Bay is one of 15 major attractions in the national park that covers an area of 242,437 rai on the mainland of Krabi and part of the Andaman Sea. The park oversees the famous Railey Beach, Thale Waek (the sandbar in the sea that can be seen at low tide), Koh Yung, Koh Mai Phai, Koh Po Da, Koh Phi Phi Don where there is a local community and resorts, and Koh Phi Phi Le.

Phi Phi Le island is about 2km south of Phi Phi Don. The size is only 6.6km², but the island has many popular tourism sites including Maya Bay which is located on the west of the island, Viking Cave which has ancient paintings of Viking ships, ​Pileh Bay and Loh Samah Bay.

Maya Bay became a global sensation when Danny Boyle and Leonardo DiCaprio came to shoot The Beach, a 2000 film about Western backpackers deluded by a vision of false paradise. Like other film locations made world famous, Maya Bay has groaned under the weight of increased tourism: Khao Tapu, or James Bond Island, in Phangnga Bay was the backdrop of The Man With The Golden Gun (1974), meanwhile Boracay, the postcard-perfect white powdery beach in the Philippines, was a location for several movies beginning in 1970 with Too Late The Hero.

The Philippines government closed Boracay in late April for six months to allow environmental rehabilitation. President Rodrigo Duterte once described the beach as a "cesspool".

Back in the old days, Maya Bay was a blissful place of calm and peace. Travellers who wanted to visit the beach had to rent a long-tail boat from the mainland in Krabi. The journey had to be self-arranged and time-consuming as a one-way trip took about two hours.

But in the past decade, tour operators from Phuket introduced an island-hopping service by speedboat from the resort island. Although the distance either from Phuket or Krabi to Maya Bay is about the same, the speedboat service shortens travel time by half. The journey from Phuket takes about one hour.

Park staff lay boundary buoys to prohibit tourist boats from entering Maya Bay. Photos courtesy of Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Koh Phi Phi National Park

Phuket is one of the top destinations for international tourists including many Chinese visitors, who flock to Phi Phi Le to take selfies on the famed Maya Bay.

Dozens of speedboats and long-tail boats bring visitors to the tiny bay daily. Their propellers and anchors have destroyed shallow coral reefs while the uncontrolled tourism led to beach erosion and damage of beach forest.

"During peak season from December to February, about 5,000 tourists stepped on the beach each day. Maya Bay was a far cry from its original beauty. What we saw was only heads of people on the small 300m-long beach," Worapoj said.

Records provided by the Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Koh Phi Phi National Park show that the number of tourists kept increasing. Last year, the park received 1.65 million visitors, up 19% from 1.38 million the year before. During the past nine months, the park already had 1.6 million visitors and was expected to welcome 2.46 million travellers by the end of this year.

The rapid growth of tourists raised concerns among related parties, including local people in Koh Phi Phi Don, tour operators in Krabi, authorities and academics.

Three years ago the marine biologist Asst Prof Thon Thamrongnawasawat, who is also deputy dean of Fisheries Department at Kasetsart University, conducted research on the carrying capacity of tourists to Maya Bay.

He found that the carrying capacity of Maya Bay should be in the range of 130-140 visitors per one visit period, meaning a period of 45 minutes by average. Thus the total amount of tourists should be capped to 2,000 visitors a day.

Dr Thon, who is also a member of the National Strategic Committee set up by the government last year to oversee national strategy over the next 20 years, proposed the beach closure to the DNP. His proposal received support from about 700 local residents out of a total of some 1,000.

The boundary line is about 400m off the shore. Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park

The beach closure had a strong impact on the tourism industry. It leads to a question of the weakness of tourism management and the failure of the government's policy on sustainable tourism.

"My main point is to send out the powerful message that we must take care of our natural resources," he said.

However, the temporary closure makes people doubt if the attempt means anything to natural rehabilitation.

Dr Thon explained that the announcement was the beginning of the ruling that "tourist boats are no longer allowed to dock on the shore of Maya Bay".

On May 31, staff of the park laid a long line of red boundary buoys between the two cliffs that form a natural entrance to the bay. The park prohibits boats to enter the bay beyond the line, which is about 400m from the beach.

Visitors will be allowed to visit Maya Bay from October through Loh Samah Bay located on the south of the island instead.

The park plans to build a floating platform for tourist boats to dock at Loh Samah Bay and also has an idea to build a wooden walkway from Loh Samah Bay to Maya Bay to prevent tourists causing any damage to the island forest.

For the coral reef restoration, Dr Thon cited the success of the coral reef recovery project at Koh Yung, north of Koh Phi Phi Don. Initiated by him, the closure of the island has been implemented since 2015.

During that time, a marine research team lead by Assoc Prof Thaithaworn Lirdwitayaprasit, the chief of the Department of Marine Science of Chulalongkorn University, helped treat coral bleaching by injecting lab cultivated algae. During the past three years, coral reefs around Koh Yung returned to life.

"If you give nature a break, it can recover. The recovery speed is also fast," said Dr Thon.

Based on this success, he has already drafted a national policy that the 17 marine national parks must have at least one protected zone like Koh Yung.

Three other marine parks also face the overcrowding. They are Mu Koh Similan, Ao Phangnga and Mu Koh Lanta.

Last week, Mu Koh Similan National Park announced a ban on overnight stays when it reopens for tourists on Oct 14.

Dr Thon hopes that Ao Phangnga National Park will take some action to limit the numbers of tourists to the famous Khao Phing Kan, where visitors stop by to see James Bond Island, and at Koh Rok, a famous snorkelling site in Mu Koh Lanta National Park.

"Although tourism contributes the huge incomes to our country, we should not see tourism as god. We must preserve our nature first," he said.

Bird's eye view of Maya Bay. Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park

A model of a floating pier that may need up to 100 million baht investment. Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park

The serene beach of Maya Bay during the closure. Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park

Tourists visiting Maya Bay in December. Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park

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