Maya Bay – Can paradise be saved?

There are hundreds of untainted white-sand beaches along the shores of Thailand, but one tiny bay in the southern coast on the island of Phi Phi Leh, which is hidden by limestone cliffs, has obsessed the world.

Made famous by the film “The Beach” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, for many years Maya Bay was visited by an exorbitant number of people hoping to step into “paradise”. However, one day last year, it was shut down.This film, based on the book by Alex Garland, tells the story about a backpacker’s search for a legendary beach untouched by tourism.Obviously, things don’t always go well in paradise. Since that moment, the already high visitor average has increased enormously. In fact, in 2008 there were about 171 people visiting Maya Bay daily, whereas by 2017, that number boosted to 3,520. They went to the beach with the aim of spending a relaxing day with family or friends, looking up to a stunning sight with huge mountains covered with big trees, but what they found was just noise and people crowded. Furthermore, as it’s a bay, there wasn’t enough space for boats and they were lined up almost the entire stretch, with a lot of people waiting to drop the anchors. So over time, for that reason, there were so many negative comments on, for example, TripAdvisor which said that the beach was “disgusting” and “unclean”.

In 2018 local tourism operator and authorities of the island of Phi Phi realized that the number of visitors was overstepped and, especially, unsustainable. The circumstances were very terrible, as the coral reefs were strictly damaged, so the environment needed time to recover. Corals are sensitive to the water quality, which was critical because of the hundreds of boats that constantly dropped the anchors on them, released oil and scared fish. Moreover, people crowds touched and tread on them.Consequently, the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation held a meeting where they argued thatdespite the future decrease of the tourism, the beach should be closed.

Before Maya Bay was shut down, there were loads of dead corals in almost all parts of the bay. People also deposited a lot of rubbish on the shore, like straws, plastic bags and bottles, cans, etc…, instead, after it was closed, all the garbage was eliminated, authorities started to plant other marine plants while others began to recover naturally, and the most significative action was the introduction of a demarcation line. In this way, people with their boats can only wait 300 metres away and look longingly at the landscape. Thank to all these efforts, after six months, there are some positives signs as the corals’ growth and, especially, the return of the fish. About 50-60 blacktip reef sharks can now be spotted each morning at Maya Bay and the female sharks chose this beach to gave birth to their babies. Concerning this occurrence,Dr Thon Thamrongnawasawat, the marine scientist from Kasetsart University who has studied Maya Bay and the area for 40 years and hired by the ministry to survey the environmental damage, said “They are a symbol of nature, everyone gets it. Sixty sharks are worth protecting.”

Nevertheless, for businesses, it’s an unsettling time.EkawitPinyotamanotai, president of the tourism council of Krabi, said “We have to admit that tourists who come to Krabi and Phi Phi islands, dream of going to Maya Bay or ‘The Beach’. Once they arrived and the short-term closure was announced, some of them cancelled the tours. They couldn’t go to the selling attraction.”

Perhaps Maya Bay is a sign that Thailand is trying to preserve its natural sources, doing all these efforts, but since it’s a nation based especially on tourism, “How long can this preservation last?” and “Can paradise really be saved?”.

Roberta Bensaia, IV DL