Tourists are returning in greater numbers by the month in Thailand but, on Phi Phi Island, locals have learned their lesson about mass tourism.
Phi Phi Leh its Maya Bay, made famous by the Leonardo DiCaprio movie “The Beach”, became the poster child for overtourism.
More than two million backpackers and tourists a year – 6,000 a day – swarmed the island. So thick were the crowds you couldn’t see the sand on the beach. Garbage grew into mountains, vegetation was trampled, speedboats became more numerous than fish, 90% of the coral died and the wildlife, on land and sea, disappeared. The limestone-rimmed paradise truly seemed lost.
Then Thai public officials did the unthinkable: They closed Maya Bay, putting the environment ahead of the annual 400 million baht in revenue tourists brought to the island.
Intially the closure was for four months. Then it was extended for another year. Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which gave the island nearly four uninterrupted years to recover.
“The pandemic restrictions actually came at a good time for the bay,” said Siriwat Suebsai, a forestry technical officer is overseeing the reopening of the beach told The Guardian newspaper.
Within six months of Maya Bay’s closure, black-tipped reef sharks began to return and now number in the hundreds. Conservationists planted 30 corals, which are now attracting tropical fish and crabs again.
Tourists, however, won’t see them now: Swimming has been banned, largely because of the chemical-rich sunscreens that killed the coral in the first place. Those who flout the rules are whistled out of the water by guards.
Only 375 visitors are allowed on the beach at a time, and all must book for a one-hour time slot on an app or with a travel agent. And only six speedboats can dock at the pier at once. Tourists are limited to just six hours a day. There’s even a new boardwalk to keep backpackers from stomping on the plants.
“In the old days we focused on increasing tourism so much that we forgot what was important,” Siriwat said. “We have to protect these areas. Now that we’ve learned that lesson and made changes, it’s important we keep going on the same track no matter what. We’ve gone back to basics and put nature first. And if nature is good, the tourists will come anyway.”