The Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation has ordered the closure of the world-class tourist site Maya Bay of Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Koh Phi Phi National Park in Krabi province.
The department said the four-month closure was necessary after it became apparent the bay's fragile marine ecological system had been severely damaged by huge numbers of tourists.
Maya Bay will be closed from June 1 until Sept 30 in a bid to give one of the country's most crowded islands "a rest", according to a resolution by the department's marine national park meeting chaired by department chief Thanya Nethithamakul on Wednesday.
Previously, business operators made strong protests against the department's effort to shut down Maya Bay, saying such a move would have a negative impact on tourism. The tiny beach has become popular over the decades after the movie The Beach was filmed there. Currently, it welcomes more than 4,000 tourists per day, which is above its carrying capacity.
Last year, a committee of academics advising the marine national park management urged the temporary closure of Maya Bay, but business operators objected.
A typical early morning at gorgeous Maya Bay beach: The visitors come early, in boatload after boatload. (Creative Commons)
National Parks Office director Songtham Suksawang said the department's decision was accepted by all stakeholders, including academics and business operators who have witnessed the island's deteriorated environment.
He said further measures will be taken in a bid to ensure that its ecological system improves.
"They [business operators] see that the boat is sinking. And all will die by doing nothing. They finally agreed with our plan to close. We have also come up with plans to rehabilitate the island, including a possible extra charge for tourists who visit the island. That could limit the number of tourists," Mr Songtham said.
The department will ban all boats parking in front of the beach as that is the main cause of damage to the island's coral reef. A new boat parking site at Losama Bay, which is located close to Maya Bay, will be constructed so tourists can follow a trail to Maya Bay. A plan to rehabilitate the coral reef is also under way.
Mr Songtham said the department's research team will inspect the site while closed to survey how its ecological system has been affected by tourism activities.
The department will work with four universities to study tourist capacity at the marine park, he added.
They will also discuss the possible closure of other islands to recover their marine ecological systems. The list includes Koh Tapoo and Kao Ping Kan in Phang Nga National Park, Koh Rok in Mu Koh Lanta National Park in Krabi province, including parts of Similan National Park in Phang Nga province. None of them have been ordered to close.
The department said it recorded the number of foreign tourists visiting Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Koh Phi Phi National Park at 1.38 million in 2016. This rose to 1.65 million in 2017.
Phang Nga National Park saw 1.3 million people in 2016 and 1.32 million in 2017. Mu Koh Lanta National Park had 97,428 foreign guests in 2016 and 177,311 last year.