Thai officials and ecologists hope a recent decision to keep the country’s most iconic beach closed for another two years will prove a cautionary tale and example for other sites in the region grappling with the environmental fallout of mass tourism.

“I think that we’re going to see more and more of it, not just around Southeast Asia, but around the world. I think that it will definitely become a trend,” said Mark Erdmann, vice president of Asia Pacific marine programs for Conservation International.

Extended closure

Thailand’s National Parks Department announced the extended closure earlier this month in a move to give the ravaged coral reefs of Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh island, just off the country’s west coast, more time to recover.

The department closed the beach nearly a year ago and has been busy replanting the reefs since. The added time will also give authorities the chance to work out the details of a plan to preserve the picture-postcard bay for posterity.

For the band of rakish drifters in the 2000 Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach, little-known Maya Bay was their Shangri-La, a secluded strip of snow-white sand and tepid turquoise waters hemmed in by a towering ring of verdant limestone cliffs, a pristine paradise all their own.

Tourism explosion

Tourists enjoy the beach at Maya Bay, Phi Phi leh island in Krabi province, T
Tourists enjoy the beach at Maya Bay, Phi Phi leh island in Krabi province, Thailand, May 31, 2018.

But just as for the movie’s misfits, it would not last long. The bay’s star turn put it squarely on the tourist map. Dozens of daily visitors soon became hundreds, and hundreds became thousands. By the time the government closed it off, about 5,000 people were visiting the tiny cove each day, more than twice what researchers said it could handle.

With the explosion in visitor numbers came a financial bonanza for both the government and local tour operators running day-trips to the uninhabited island by boat. Parks Department Director Songtam Suksawang said the marine park encompassing Phi Phi Leh was pulling in nearly a quarter of the annual 2.5 billion baht ($78.66 million) being generated by all of Thailand’s 154 national parks.

But the bay’s blessing was also its curse.

Environmental damage

With those numbers came an ecological calamity. The daily fleet of boats beaching at Maya Bay and the thousands of sun-seekers they disgorged had brought the local ecosystem to near-collapse. Some 90 percent of the coral had died off, Songtam said, taking most of the other marine life they sustained with them.

In June 2018, after consulting with experts, the Parks Department decided that only drastic measures would let it save what was left and make it possible to recover what was lost.

Jeanette van Leeuwin, a 29-year-old from The Netherlands, helps national park
Jeanette van Leeuwin, a 29-year-old from The Netherlands, helps national park rangers with coral propagation on Maya Bay, Phi Phi Leh island in Krabi province, Thailand, May 31, 2018.

Now, along with reviving the reefs, the government is drawing up a new management plan to avoid a repetition. Once the bay reopens in 2021, it plans to track boats and use advance ticket sales to keep daily visitor numbers below the island’s calculated carrying capacity of about 2,400. It will also ban boats from beaching or even entering the bay’s shallows, and build a pier for the boats to dock safely on a smaller beach that leads to the bay via a short walk.

Officials in other countries charged with running their own parks are taking note.

“A lot of countries, especially in Asia, like Korea, Japan, they visit to our park, to Maya Bay, to study the lessons learned,” Songtam said.

Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a member of the Thai government’s marine parks advisory board, was among those who urged the Parks Department to think long-term and extend the shutdown.

“We try to tell the world that sometimes you have to take care of nature, sometimes you cannot allow everything. Sometimes you have to stop and take a look and think, and then do the right way and try to preserve our nature,” said Thon, an assistant dean of the fisheries faculty at Thailand’s Kasetsart University.

‘Instagram tourism’

Erdmann, of Conservation International, said it was tough for any parks department to get ahead of the sort of “Instagram tourism” that hit Maya Bay so suddenly. He commended Thailand for temporarily closing Maya Bay and said other governments across the region seeing a similar surge in tourists were actively thinking of doing the same and capping visitor numbers, either before or after a temporary shutdown.

Tourists wade in the shallow water back to their boats from Maya Bay on Phi P
Tourists wade in the shallow water back to their boats from Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh island, Krabi province, Thailand, May 31, 2018.

The Philippines recently closed off Boracay Island for six months and imposed strict new limits on how many people could visit — and what they could and could not do — when it reopened in October.

Erdmann said the Raja Ampat archipelago in Indonesia, where he has done much of his research, was also considering closing some popular dive sites for six to 12 months and that spots around Bali were in desperate need of a respite as well.

“I think that a lot of smaller governments, a lot of communities around the region right now are reassessing — is tourism a good thing or a bad thing when tourism gets to the really high numbers that a lot of these places are experiencing? And I think that you’ll find that a lot of areas are going to eventually follow suit,” he said.