On World En­vi­ron­ment Day, we look at the closure of Maya Bay and the dilemma be­tween the need for conservation and the fi­nan­cial gains from tourism

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - Weekend|Environment -

LEAVES sway, sand sparkles as the Sun shines brightly over the blue-green water. The 300m-long white beach of Maya Bay looks quiet and serene. It’s a strange sight: Not a sin­gle vis­i­tor in sight, not a sign or noise from the long-tail or speed­boats that usu­ally dump hordes of tourists on the curved beach.

“It is a scene no one has seen for 18 years,” Wo­rapoj Lom­lim, chief of Hat Nop­pharat Thara-mu Koh Phi Phi Na­tional Park in Krabi, told Life on June 1. It was the first day that the De­part­ment of Na­tional Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) im­ple­mented beach clo­sures, bar­ring all tourists from one of the coun­try’s most pop­u­lar nat­u­ral at­trac­tions. The closure will re­main in place un­til Sept 30.

It is also the first time that vis­i­tors are prohibited from vis­it­ing the beach since it be­came part of Hat Nop­pharat Thara-mu Koh Phi Phi Na­tional Park in 1982, 36 years ago. Dur­ing the peak sea­son, over 5,000 tourists a day de­scend on the small strip of beach.

“Since our main duty is to pro­tect our nat­u­ral re­sources, we im­ple­mented the pol­icy dur­ing the mon­soon to let nature re­cover from tourism dam­age. We ex­pect to close all ac­cess to Maya Bay ev­ery rainy sea­son start­ing this year,” he said.

Be­fore Maya Bay be­comes a vic­tim of its own success, of­fi­cials made a bold move to close it down. Usu­ally, sev­eral nat­u­ral parks in Thai­land ap­ply sea­sonal closure to al­low nature to rest and re­vive. But the de­ci­sion to close the bay and lose hun­dreds of millions of baht in tourism revenue -- at a time when tourism is a main en­gine of the econ­omy, con­tribut­ing nearly 18% of the na­tional GDP -- is some­thing quite un­prece­dented.

Maya Bay is one of 15 ma­jor at­trac­tions in the na­tional park that cov­ers an area of 242,437 rai on the main­land of Krabi and part of the An­daman Sea. The park over­sees the fa­mous Rai­ley Beach, Thale Waek (the sand­bar in the sea that can be seen at low tide), Koh Yung, Koh Mai Phai, Koh Po Da, Koh Phi Phi Don where there is a lo­cal com­mu­nity and re­sorts, and Koh Phi Phi Le.

Phi Phi Le is­land is about 2km south of Phi Phi Don. The size is only 6.6km2, but the is­land has many pop­u­lar tourism sites in­clud­ing Maya Bay which is lo­cated on the west of the is­land, Vik­ing Cave which has an­cient paint­ings of Vik­ing ships, Pileh Bay and Loh Samah Bay.

Maya Bay be­came a global sen­sa­tion when Danny Boyle and Leonardo Dicaprio came to shoot The Beach, a 2000 film about West­ern back­pack­ers de­luded by a vi­sion of false par­adise. Like other film lo­ca­tions made world fa­mous, Maya Bay has groaned un­der the weight of in­creased tourism: Khao Tapu, or James Bond Is­land, in Phangnga Bay was the back­drop of The Man With The Golden Gun (1974), mean­while Bo­ra­cay, the post­card-per­fect white pow­dery beach in the Philip­pines, was a lo­ca­tion for sev­eral movies be­gin­ning in 1970 with Too Late The Hero.

The Philip­pines govern­ment closed Bo­ra­cay in late April for six months to al­low en­vi­ron­men­tal re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte once de­scribed the beach as a “cesspool”.

Back in the old days, Maya Bay was a bliss­ful place of calm and peace. Trav­ellers who wanted to visit the beach had to rent a long-tail boat from the main­land in Krabi. The jour­ney had to be self-ar­ranged and time­con­sum­ing as a one-way trip took about two hours.

But in the past decade, tour op­er­a­tors from Phuket in­tro­duced an is­land-hop­ping ser­vice by speed­boat from the re­sort is­land. Al­though the dis­tance ei­ther from Phuket or Krabi to Maya Bay is about the same, the speed­boat ser­vice short­ens travel time by half. The jour­ney from Phuket takes about one hour.

Phuket is one of the top des­ti­na­tions for in­ter­na­tional tourists in­clud­ing many Chi­nese vis­i­tors, who flock to Phi Phi Le to take self­ies on the famed Maya Bay.

Dozens of speed­boats and long-tail boats bring vis­i­tors to the tiny bay daily. Their pro­pel­lers and an­chors have de­stroyed shal­low co­ral reefs while the un­con­trolled tourism led to beach ero­sion and dam­age of beach for­est.

“Dur­ing peak sea­son from De­cem­ber to Fe­bru­ary, about 5,000 tourists stepped on the beach each day. Maya Bay was a far cry from its orig­i­nal beauty. What we saw was only heads of peo­ple on the small 300m-long beach,” Wo­rapoj said.

Records pro­vided by the Hat Nop­pharat Thara-mu Koh Phi Phi Na­tional Park show that the num­ber of tourists kept in­creas­ing. Last year, the park re­ceived 1.65 mil­lion vis­i­tors, up 19% from 1.38 mil­lion the year be­fore. Dur­ing the past nine months, the park al­ready had 1.6 mil­lion vis­i­tors and was ex­pected to wel­come 2.46 mil­lion trav­ellers by the end of this year.

The rapid growth of tourists raised con­cerns among re­lated par­ties, in­clud­ing lo­cal peo­ple in Koh Phi Phi Don, tour op­er­a­tors in Krabi, author­i­ties and aca­demics.

Three years ago the marine bi­ol­o­gist Asst Prof Thon Tham­rong­nawa­sawat, who is also deputy dean of Fish­eries De­part­ment at Kaset­sart Univer­sity, con­ducted re­search on the car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity of tourists to Maya Bay.

He found that the car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity of Maya Bay should be in the range of 130-140 vis­i­tors per one visit pe­riod, mean­ing a pe­riod of 45 min­utes by av­er­age. Thus the to­tal amount of tourists should be capped to 2,000 vis­i­tors a day.

Dr Thon, who is also a mem­ber of the Na­tional Strate­gic Com­mit­tee set up by the govern­ment last year to over­see na­tional strat­egy over the next 20 years, proposed the beach closure to the DNP. His pro­posal re­ceived sup­port from about 700 lo­cal res­i­dents out of a to­tal of some 1,000.

The beach closure had a strong im­pact on the tourism in­dus­try. It leads to a ques­tion of the weak­ness of tourism man­age­ment and the fail­ure of the govern­ment’s pol­icy on sus­tain­able tourism.

“My main point is to send out the pow­er­ful mes­sage that we must take care of our nat­u­ral re­sources,” he said.

How­ever, the tem­po­rary closure makes peo­ple doubt if the at­tempt means any­thing to nat­u­ral re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion.

Dr Thon ex­plained that the an­nounce­ment was the be­gin­ning of the rul­ing that “tourist boats are no longer al­lowed to dock on the shore of Maya Bay”.

On May 31, staff of the park laid a long line of red bound­ary buoys be­tween the two cliffs that form a nat­u­ral entrance to the bay. The park pro­hibits boats to en­ter the bay be­yond the line, which is about 400m from the beach.

Vis­i­tors will be al­lowed to visit Maya Bay from Oc­to­ber through Loh Samah Bay lo­cated on the south of the is­land in­stead.

The park plans to build a float­ing plat­form for tourist boats to dock at Loh Samah Bay and also has an idea to build a wooden walk­way from Loh Samah Bay to Maya Bay to pre­vent tourists caus­ing any dam­age to the is­land for­est.

For the co­ral reef restora­tion, Dr Thon cited the success of the co­ral reef re­cov­ery project at Koh Yung, north of Koh Phi Phi Don. Ini­ti­ated by him, the closure of the is­land has been im­ple­mented since 2015.

Dur­ing that time, a marine re­search team lead by As­soc Prof Thaitha­worn Lird­witayapr­a­sit, the chief of the De­part­ment of Marine Sci­ence of Chu­la­longkorn Univer­sity, helped treat co­ral bleach­ing by in­ject­ing lab cul­ti­vated al­gae. Dur­ing the past three years, co­ral reefs around Koh Yung re­turned to life.

“If you give nature a break, it can re­cover. The re­cov­ery speed is also fast,” said Dr Thon.

Based on this success, he has al­ready drafted a na­tional pol­icy that the 17 marine na­tional parks must have at least one pro­tected zone like Koh Yung.

Three other marine parks also face the over­crowd­ing. They are Mu Koh Sim­i­lan, Ao Phangnga and Mu Koh Lanta.

Last week, Mu Koh Sim­i­lan Na­tional Park an­nounced a ban on overnight stays when it re­opens for tourists on Oct 14.

Dr Thon hopes that Ao Phangnga Na­tional Park will take some ac­tion to limit the num­bers of tourists to the fa­mous Khao Phing Kan, where vis­i­tors stop by to see James Bond Is­land, and at Koh Rok, a fa­mous snorkelling site in Mu Koh Lanta Na­tional Park.

“Al­though tourism con­trib­utes the huge in­comes to our coun­try, we should not see tourism as god. We must pre­serve our nature first,” he said.

Photo: The Bangkok Post

Bird’s eye view of Maya Bay.

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