Updated: Aug 14, 2019
Tourism has been on the rise for over a decade and it appears that nothing is standing in its way of growing even more. While prosperous to the local economy (it accounts for 20% of Thailand’s), it has often been detrimental to its ecology and its environment.
That is the reason why Maya Bay––a gorgeous beach off of the island of Koh Phi Phi––has been closed for over a year, and will continue to be shuttered for at least 2 more years.
This isn’t an isolated incidence; tourism does come with its downsides. And at a certain point, intervention is critical to protecting the ecosystem that relies on that habitat.
Maya Bay is world famous for its breathtaking cove. You might have seen it in the 2000 DiCaprio flick The Beach.
I remember watching that movie and thinking to myself, “minus the whole shark attack scene, I can totally see why an entire community of nomads decided to live there.”
After that movie was released, the spot completely blew up and the small, nearly 1,000 foot long white-sand beach has never been the same since.
A Victim of Its Own Success
In 2018, the beach had 2.5 million visitors––a 500,000 person increased from the previous year.
Unlike other popular destinations in Thailand, the island of Phi Phi Leh does not have local residences. There are no hotels and staying at the beach overnight is strictly prohibited.
Most visitors come from Phuket by boat, lining their vessels across this small stretch of land throughout the day. As a result, most of the coral reefs have died.
On land, tourists have voiced complaints that its overcrowded and the state of the beach has reached a level of unprecedented filth.
Stepping in For a Cause
The Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation held a crisis meeting to discuss the fate of Maya Bay.
Even the local tourism operators, who rely on the beach as a source of income, have acknowledged that the current situation was unsustainable and would therefore cause irreparable damage to the ecosystem.
Despite concerns around the tourism business, authorities were able to successfully argue in favor of the beaches closure and on June 1, 2018, they established a line of demarcation that profited boats from crossing.
Today, authorities continue to patrol the area to ensure nobody is entering the bay.
The Need For More Time
But what started out to be a 4-month tourist ban has quickly turned into an extension until at least 2021.
A letter from the DNP states that “the ecosystem and the beach's physical structure have yet returned to its full condition” and that the closure will continue "until natural resources return to normal.”
Thon Thamrongnawasawat, marine biologist and member of the national park's committee, suggests that another reason for the extended closure was for the development of additional facilities, including bathrooms, a dock for tourist boats, a walking board and a residence for officials.
They will also be establishing an eticket system when it reopens.
Lauren, our J2 Thailand alumni, talks about Krabi as an alternative beach to Koh Phi Phi.
Over a year into the closure, there has been total cooperation between the local community and park officials. And the effects certainly show.
The beachfront forests are starting to replenish and 10 different types of corals have been planted––with 29,000 growing currently. Without traffic from visitors and boats, and the suspended use of destructive fishing gear, there have been noticeable improvements to the ecosystem.
Blacktip reef sharks have been sighted swimming within the bay––a rare yet hopeful sighting, as they are just now returning to their natural habitat. This is also beneficial to coral due to the shark’s crucial role in preventing too many fish from inhabiting the coral reefs.
A determination for reopening the park will not be made until 2021, and while tourism is suffering in the short-term, the plan in place is fundamental to its long-term survival.
This isn’t the first time that the environmental effects of mass tourism has made headline news.
More than ever, the world needs us––to preserve its beauty, resources, and livelihood. And we may be the last generation to make that happen.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that we should stop traveling. It means that we may need to reevaluate our approach to travel. Individually, something we could all do is to make sure we leave the places we visit in a better condition than how we found it.
What do you do to ensure you’re a good steward of tourism? Let me know in the comment section below.
About Journey to Teach Abroad:
Become a global citizen and discover life TEACHING ABROAD. Get paid to travel to stunning places, bond with an international community that you'll forever belong to, feel rewarded daily for teaching students who want to learn, and gain the confidence to discover new things. Journey to Teach Abroad is a teacher training TEFL certification course here in Los Angeles that GUARANTEES a teaching job abroad.
About our J2 Writer: Lauren Brose
Lauren Brose is a marketer and writer based in New York City. She enjoys writing about travel, lifestyle, sustainability, music, and politics. At the top of her travel wishlist is Vietnam, Singapore and South Africa. She hopes to someday write and travel full-time––in the meantime, she chooses to live vicariously through the incredible English teachers from J2 Teach Abroad.