New Straits Times
SUSTAINABLE COMEBACK FOR THAI BEACH
Huge income cannot be compared with natural resources, says national parks chief
WHILE travel stopped and the world locked down, in the dazzling blue waters of Thailand’s Phi Phi islands, a gentle renaissance was under way.
Mass tourism had brought the archipelago, immortalised in 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 8m 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 were forced to close Maya Bay itself in 2018.
Five small brownbanded bamboo sharks are set free, their striped bodies and long tails flickering through the water.
But after being raised in captivity they are reluctant to swim out among the clown fish, barracudas and turtles.
“They need time to adapt. We waited until they reached 30cm to maximise their chance of survival,” says Kullawit, who is working on the project with the Phuket Marine Biological Centre
“The aim is that once they are adults, they will stay and breed here to repopulate the species.”
Before the pandemic, Phi Phi National Marine Park, with its white sandy beaches and coral reefs, attracted more than 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.
Inevitably, so many people arriving in noisy, polluting motorboats with so little control over
numbers had a huge impact on the area’s delicate ecology.
“The coral cover has decreased by more than 60 per cent in just over 10 years,” says Thon Thamrongnawasawat of Kasetsart University in Bangkok.
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.
And whale sharks, the world’s largest fish and listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, have been spotted off the coast.
“Everything suggests that there is more reproduction, especially among sharks, which appreciate calm waters,” said Thon.
As for the corals, “more than 40 per cent of the fragments replanted in Maya Bay have survived, a very satisfactory figure obtained thanks to the absence of visitors”.
But recovery will be slow: at least two decades will be needed to restore the coral reef, Thon warned.
Phi Phi is slowly resuming tourism, still mostly local for now, but foreigners are returning as Thailand eases its strict rules for visitors, and Maya Bay is due to reopen on Jany 1.
The government has said it wants to move on from Thailand’s history of hedonistic mass tourism, with Tourism Minister
Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn saying the focus would be on “high-end travellers, rather than a large number of visitors”.
On Phi Phi, national parks chief Pramote Kaewnam insists the mistakes of the past will not be repeated.
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.
“Maya Bay used to bring in up to US$60,000 a day, but this huge income cannot be compared with the natural resources we have lost,” Pramote said.