KRABI, Thailand, Feb. 20 (Xinhua) — As sightseeing boats headed into the turquoise waters of Maya Bay, a floating buoy rope kept them a few hundred meters away from the glistening beach, leaving tourists to appreciate the beauty from afar before the boats turned back and departed.
These boats then need to navigate around to the back of the bay, where a floating pier has been built for brief stops. From there, tourists disembark and walk along a wooden pathway through the jungle to the white sand beach, a place made famous after featuring in a 2000 film “The Beach” starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
This has now become a common pattern for visitors coming to Phi Phi islands’ famous scenic spot on the Andaman Sea coast.
It’s hard to imagine that five years ago, the beach was inundated with thousands of speedboats and tourists daily, leaving in their wake a trail of devastation on the coral reef and marine ecosystem, compelling authorities to make the difficult decision to close Maya Bay in mid-2018.
Then, the unexpected arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic also provided this place with a breather and allowed for the restoration of its marine environment.
“It is one of the most successful marine actions in many years not only for Thailand but for the whole world,” Thon Thamrongnawasawat, deputy dean of the Faculty of Fisheries at Kasetsart University, told Xinhua in a phone interview.
According to the marine biologist, under official management, the number of people entering Maya Bay beach has been reduced from around 7,000 per round to just 375, with strict limitations on their activities and length of stay on the island.
Tourists are only permitted into shallow waters and stand in a spot where the sea level is below their knees. Thon specifically emphasized this detail as a means of avoiding any disturbance to the coral’s delicate ecosystem.
This regulated form of tourism has resulted in the rapid restoration of the marine environment in Maya Bay. Thon mentioned that he had observed over 100 black-tip reef sharks swimming in the shallow waters of the bay.
The current achievement should give credit to the private sector, which has also played an important role in repairing the island’s ecosystem, Thon said, giving an example of the Marine Discovery Center, the first institution of its kind in Thailand.
Established in 2018, this center is located within a luxury resort on Phi Phi Don island, serving as a comprehensive institution for education and marine life cultivation.
According to Kullawit Limchularat, sustainability development senior specialist at Singha Estate, the developer of the resort, the center operates multiple projects such as breeding clownfish and bamboo sharks, in collaboration with government agencies and national parks.
As of now, approximately 50 clownfish and 25 bamboo sharks have been released back into their natural habitats, including the four sharks that were recently returned to the sea, Kullawit told Xinhua.
In addition, the center is open to the local community and schools, organizing activities for visitors to participate in beach cleanups and mangrove replanting.
Since its opening, the center has seen close to 17,000 visitors and has effectively raised awareness among many people, Kullawit said.
As tourism begins to pick up in the Phi Phi islands after the pandemic-induced lull, hotel operators are expecting an influx of tourists later this year.
Saii Resorts cluster general manager Bart Callens has expressed support for the authorities’ efforts to manage visitors in sensitive areas like Maya Bay. He believes that government and local businesses can work together to make the environment better for everyone.
Thon is also optimistic about the current situation. He said that the most challenging part of building a system to balance tourism and ecology is behind them and that the focus now should be on ensuring that the system works effectively in the long term.