WHILE travel stopped and the world locked down, in the dazzling blue waters of Thailand’s idyllic Phi Phi islands, a gentle renaissance was under way.
Mass tourism had brought the archipelago, immortalised in the Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach, to the brink of ecological catastrophe.
Now Thailand hopes to make Phi Phi the standard-bearer for a new, more sustainable model of tourism as the country reopens to visitors after the long Covid-19 shutdown.
Near a coral islet just a few kilometres from Maya Bay – the iconic cove surrounded by towering tree-clad cliffs that was home to the beach paradise of the DiCaprio film – marine biologist Kullawit Limchularat dives through eight metres of crystalline water and carefully releases a young bamboo shark.
His mission: to repopulate the reefs after years of damage caused by uncontrolled visitor numbers, a crisis that got so bad the authorities had to close Maya Bay itself in 2018.
“The aim is that once they are adults, they will stay and breed here to help repopulate the species,” says Kullawit, who is working on the project with the Phuket Marine Biological Centre.
Before the pandemic, Phi Phi National Marine Park attracted over two million visitors a year.
Until it was closed, Maya Bay’s dazzling beauty and Hollywood fame drew up to 6,000 people a day to its narrow 250m-long beach.
So many people arriving in noisy, polluting motorboats with little control over numbers had a huge impact on the area’s delicate ecology.“The coral cover has decreased by more than 60% in just over 10 years,” says Thon Thamrongnawasawat of Kasetsart University.
As early as 2018, Thon raised the alarm and pushed the authorities to close part of the bay.
Then, the pandemic hit and visitor numbers dwindled to virtually nil as Thailand imposed tough travel rules, putting the entire archipelago into a forced convalescence.
As a result, dozens of blacktip sharks, green turtles and hawksbill turtles have returned.
Phi Phi is slowly resuming tourism, mostly local for now, but foreigners are returning as Thailand eases its draconian rules for visitors. Maya Bay will reopen on Jan 1.
The government has said it wants to move on from Thailand’s history of hedonistic mass tourism, with Tourism Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn vowing to focus on “high-end travellers, rather than a large number of visitors”.
On Phi Phi, boats will no longer be allowed to moor near the beach and will instead drop tourists off at a jetty away from the cove. Tours will be limited to one hour, with a maximum of 300 people per tour. — AFP