KRABI — Once a pristine Thai paradise, the secluded bay made famous by the Leonardo DiCaprio movie “The Beach” has been exhausted by mass tourism. It’s now getting a break from the daily influx of dozens of boats and thousands of visitors unsuccessfully scrambling for an unspoiled view of glistening white sands and emerald waters.
Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh Island in the Andaman Sea will close to tourists for four months from Friday to give its coral reefs and sea life a chance to recover from an onslaught that began nearly two decades ago. Thai authorities, who have promoted unfettered tourism but now claim to be striving to balance profit and conservation, say the closure will happen every year.
It’s part of a rethink happening globally about unrestricted tourism that brings big dollars but damages historic sites, harms the environment and often alienates locals. Last month, the Philippines began a six-month closure of popular Boracay Island, whose waters President Rodrigo Duterte described as a “cesspool.” Venice, the famed Italian lagoon city that lives off tourism, installed gates at two access bridges during a four-day holiday in April so it could turn back visitors if numbers became overwhelming.
Many of Thailand’s marine national parks are closed from mid-May to mid-October during the monsoon season but because of Maya Bay’s popularity, it hasn’t had a break since a Hollywood crew set foot on its sands in 1999 to film the dark backpacker tale based on a novel by Alex Garland. Its corals have been decimated by the suffocating clouds of sand and sediment churned up by speedboats.
“I tried to push this campaign for many many years, but you know in Thailand we are a tourism industry country and we need a lot of money, so before not so many people listened,” said Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a marine biologist and member of a government committee on development and the environment. “It should have been done 10 years ago but at least it has been done,” he said.
Thailand had about 35 million international visitors last year, a five-fold increase in little more than two decades.
Shi Pengfei, among the last tourists to visit Maya Bay before its closure, said he had no idea that there would be so many people on the beach.
“I feel that there are so many people here,” said Shi, from Henan, China. “The government’s plan to close off the beach for a few months is only natural because the ocean needs a break, a chance to recover, so that the next generation can have a better and even more beautiful destination.”
But locals aren’t entirely happy. The head of Phi Phi Tourist Business Association, Watrapol Jantharo, said he was surprised when the closure was announced in March.
He said locals were under the impression that Maya Bay would only be closed to boats, while visitors would still walk to the bay from the other side of the island.
“We are not against protecting our environment,” he said. “We know full well that Maya Bay is our important resource, like a rice field to a farmer, but we wish there are more communications about the government’s plan before the decision was made.”
Thon, however, said the plan was discussed with locals for three years before a decision was made.
“In the past, we made some mistake because we think that the money is very important. But now we are trying to change our idea,” he said. Overseas visitors are “very important to our country, but the most important thing is our national resource. We have to preserve and hand it to the next generation.”
The government has set a limit of 2,000 tourists a day when the bay reopens – about half the current cap. Boats will no longer be allowed to anchor but must dock on the opposite side of the island.
“Now that the government has this plan, we can’t change it. But we could use this opportunity to tell the world that we do not just have Maya Bay. There are 10 other beautiful beaches and islands around here that tourists can enjoy,” said Watrapol.
Thailand’s efforts to protect certain islands after decades of unregulated tourism began about three years ago.
Yoong Island, part of the Phi Phi island chain, and Tachai Island in the Similan Islands National Park, have been off-limits to tourists since mid-2016.
Thon, who surveyed both islands recently, said he was amazed by the results. Waters that were devoid of fish are now teeming, he said, and there is about 10,000 square meters (107,600 square feet) of newly recovered coral off one of the islands.
At Maya Bay, park rangers have been preparing a coral propagation program, attaching it to rocks that will be placed in the bay once the tourists are gone.
“We’re almost certain that something good will happen in Maya Bay,” Thon said.