SERENA GONZALEZ WRITES – After a 4-year closure to allow its marine ecosystem to replenish itself, Thailand’s Maya Bay, one of the country’s most famous beaches is back, but with some stringent rules in place.
Surrounded by towering limestone cliffs on an uninhabited island in Thailand’s Phi Phi archipelago, the secluded cove with its white sand and turquoise water is the very picture of paradise. Maya Bay is just one of dozens of idyllic beaches in Thailand, but it has become world-famous as the place where the 2000 film “The Beach,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, was shot. Tourists flocked to the bay after the film’s release – at the cost of the marine environment. At the height of its popularity, there were more than 5,000 people visiting a day. In mid-2018, the overcrowding got so bad that authorities shut down the beach and just re-opened it in January 2022.
Before the bay was shut for the first time due to ecological recovery, hordes of tourists visited via boat, and the damage done by tourism soiled this paradise. About 80% of the coral in this pristine bay had been destroyed through pollution and careless anchoring; and the sand on the beach itself had been severely eroded by the thousands of visitors each day. At first, the bay was put on a 4-month closure; the Department of National Parks (DNP) started a tree and coral planting program and devised a sustainable visiting plan for when the bay eventually reopens. Some ideas that were being considered were pre-booking, staggered visiting slots with limited numbers and restricted access from the rear of the bay only, with boats docking at floating pontoons and visitors walking along a path to access the beach.
Maya Bay, however, is unique in its fame and the number of tourists it draws, and this was perhaps one of the reasons the decision to close it was so long in coming. As expected, the news of the extended closure was received with protests from local tour operators. It was claimed business would suffer as Maya Bay is a “bucket list” item for many visitors, who had already booked packages thinking the beach would be open again this high season.
There is some good news, though. There is already evidence that the absence of tourists has had a positive effect. There are signs of regrowth on corals and a school of blacktop reef sharks has already been spotted swimming close to shore.
If all the inspirational and beautiful places in the world are devastated by over-tourism, wildlife and marine life relocate, or worse, die off – what are we going to leave for others? At the rate the bay had been declining, there wouldn’t be too much left for even the next generation.
Collectively as tourists, we should feel disgusted when we visit a natural habitat with trash littering the sands and waters. We should be wanting to make a positive impact. With another few years of care, this once pristine bay could soon return to its former glory.