It’s just past 7 a.m. on a February morning in Maya Bay, several weeks after authorities reopened what is one of Thailand’s most popular tourist attractions to the world for the first time since June 2018 following a massive rehabilitation program.
A lone tourist walks along the shore, the towering limestone monoliths appearing to float over the surface of the water, their bases eroded by millions of years of lapping salt water. In the distance, blacktip sharks swim through the bay, their fins breaking the surface.
It’s a surreal scene, having this spectacular cove largely to oneself.
In the hours to follow, a slow but steady trickle of arrivals becomes a deluge as dozens of tourists trudge down a newly erected boardwalk, making their way to the celebrated white-sand beach, phones at the ready as they take selfies and pose for photos.
Those who venture more than a few steps into the water are met with loud whistles from a park official overlooking the beach from a sheltered lifeguard tower nestled in the trees edging the sand; swimming is not allowed, though visitors can wade a few steps in.
But some tourists are seemingly unable to resist the aquamarine waters of the bay and attempt to push the boundaries. One French tourist is issued a 5,000 baht fine (about $137) for repeatedly ignoring the rule.
On the boardwalk, an elderly woman furtively smokes a cigarette near the entrance to the beach — a strictly no smoking area.
It’s disheartening, but a huge improvement over what visitors once experienced here.
The beach that was loved to death
Located in Thailand’s Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park, Maya Bay is part of the uninhabited Phi Phi Leh, one of the two main Phi Phi islands, in Krabi province.
For Thai authorities, balancing the need for travelers — tourism contributed about 20% to Thailand’s GDP prior to the pandemic — with the urgent call to protect the park’s precious natural resources is an ongoing challenge.
“The best solution is nobody comes,” says marine biologist and professor Dr. Thon Thamrongnawasawat.
“If you ask me as a scientist, keep the bay for the sharks. But as we know, the bay is a big tourism spot. So we have to compromise.”
Thon is widely credited with convincing authorities to indefinitely close the bay four years ago — a controversial decision at the time.
Leading a team of marine scientists, he worked with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment alongside the private sector — namely, property developer Singha Estates, which has put sustainability at the forefront of its operations — on the massive rejuvenation project that took place in the absence of tourists.
“Around 40 years ago, Maya Bay was already a tourism destination, but (mainly) only for Thai tourists — and not so many because you didn’t have speed boats at that time,” Thon says.
“More and more people came. And then there was that movie from Hollywood.”
‘That movie’ of course being “The Beach,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Released in 2000, it focused on a group of backpackers looking to create their own private utopia on an unbelievably beautiful island in Thailand.
As the film’s popularity grew, so too did tourists’ desire to visit the location where much of it was shot — Maya Bay.
Over the years, the number of tourists increased from less than 1,000 to as many as 7,000 or 8,000 visitors a day at its peak, says Thon. Many were daytrippers visiting from nearby Phuket. On average, around 5,000 people entered the bay each day.
“There were a lot of boats coming in,” he recalls. “I used to check using a drone and I found almost 100 boats at the same time.”
The boats’ propellers whisked sand up onto the coral, their anchors slamming down onto the delicate sea floor. Incoming tourists walked on the reef as well, most unaware of the damage they were doing.
Thon says they first checked on the corals around 30 years ago, and 70-80% of the bay’s reef was intact.
Years later, less than 8% remained.
Aside from important ecological concerns, the tourist experience was not a positive one either. Panoramic views of the beautiful bay were blocked by the long line of boats anchored along the shore.
Since closing the bay in 2018, Thon and a team of fellow marine experts and volunteers have replanted over 30,000 pieces of coral, much of it grown off the coast of a nearby island, Koh Yung.
About 50% of the replanted coral survived — there was some bleaching — and now it’s starting to grow and spread on its own. As Thon says, “mother nature is doing the job.”
Without the transplanting process, he says it would take 30-50 years for the reef to regenerate naturally.
Meanwhile, the wildlife also returned and has been thriving. Among the animals currently inhabiting the bay are clownfish, lobsters and blacktip sharks, which are harmless to humans.
“When we closed the bay, after only three months, the blacktip sharks came back, they keep on mating, some of them give birth … so there are a lot of things happening in Maya Bay, not only the coral reef.”
(See above video for more on the restoration project.)
A resurrected bay closes again
Now, a mere seven months since reopening, Thai authorities are closing Maya Bay once again.
This time, however, the closure will only last two months, from August 1 to September 30, during the monsoon season.
This is an excerpt from an article by Karla Cripps originally published by CNN.