Thailand: Devastated by mass tourism, the Phi Phi Islands promise to reinvent themselves

The archipelago has been licking its wounds since the pandemic and the authorities promise to invent another development model there. Time is of the essence: the famous Maya Bay, immortalized by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film “The Beach” and forced to close in 2018 to avoid an ecological disaster, is due to reopen on January 1st.

Five bamboo sharks, two males and three females, are launched off the famous beach. Born in captivity, these small sharks with striped bodies and long tails are reluctant to sneak past clownfish, barracuda and sea turtles.

“You need time to adjust. We waited until they reached 30 centimeters to optimize their chances of survival,” biologist Kullawit Limchularat, known as Aum, who is conducting the operation in partnership with the Center for Marine Biology in Phuket, told AFP (south).

A female lays eggs once a month. “The goal is for it to stay here and breed and participate in the recolonization of the species,” “Near Threatened,” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Phi Phi Marine National Park, with its white sand beaches and coral reefs, drew more than two million visitors each year before the pandemic.

environmental disaster

Human impact, the overabundance of motor boats, the lack of regulation on these islands, which are nevertheless classified as “national parks”, combined with global warming have resulted in an environmental catastrophe.

In Maya Bay, up to 6,000 people flocked to its narrow, 250-meter-long beach in one day. “The coral cover there has decreased by more than 60% in just over 10 years,” notes Thon Thamrongnawasawat of Kasetsart University in Bangkok. In 2018, the scientist sounded the alarm bell, urging authorities to close part of the bay, also devastated by erosion.

The pandemic then plunges the entire archipelago into forced convalescence. Since then, dozens of blacktip sharks, green or hawksbill turtles have been moving in the shallow waters. Whale sharks, the world’s largest endangered fish, have been sighted offshore.

“Everything indicates that there is more breeding, especially in sharks that like calm waters,” notes Thon Thamrongnawasawat. As for the corals, “more than 40% of the fragments newly planted in Maya Bay have survived, a very satisfactory figure obtained thanks to the absence of visitors”.

But recovery will be slow. The biologist warns that it will take at least two decades to restore the coral reef.

regulation

Phi Phi is tentatively reviving tourism, which is still essentially local – although drastic travel restrictions on foreign visitors heading to Thailand have recently been eased. And Maya Bay is slated to reopen on January 1 after more than three years of closure. Nobody wants to repeat the mistakes of the past, says Pramote Kaewnam, director of the national park.

Boats are not allowed to dock near the beach and drop tourists off at a jetty away from the bay. Visits are limited to one hour, with a maximum of 300 people per tour. “Maya Bay was making us up to $60,000 a day. But this tremendous income cannot be compared to the natural resources that we have lost,” notes the director.

The number of visitors is also regulated in other important places in the archipelago. And beware of boats trying to anchor on the coral reefs or tourists having fun feeding the fish, they will be fined $150.

– “Upscale Travelers” –

Phi Phi must inspire the whole kingdom. The government now wants to focus on quality and “attract high-end travelers rather than large visitor numbers”.

Local businesses need to adapt. “We need tourism revenue, but we also need education. We all understood that with the pandemic,” said Sirithon Thamrongnawasawat, vice president of sustainable development at Singha Estate.

The group, owner of a 200-room hotel on the island of Thailand, has set up a marine center there dedicated to the archipelago’s ecosystem and is funding several projects, coral reforestation, bamboo shark breeding and clown fish subsequently released into the sea.

The first foreign visitors returning to the region seem enthusiastic about this new approach. “We didn’t just come to dive in the turquoise waters. We also want to help,” says Franck, before helping to clean up the nearby mangroves. “It would be great if the island remained so depopulated.” But the archipelago’s 2,500 residents have seen their income plummet with the pandemic and are hoping for a quick return of customers.

Pailin Naowabutr has been scouring the waters of Phi Phi for seven years, ferrying tourists aboard his long-tail boat. “Before the Covid I was making $30 a day. I had to stop and multiply the odd jobs for less than $10.” The sailor recently went back to sea. He looks nostalgically to the horizon, to Phuket, its big sister, which is an hour away by speedboat and welcomed millions of tourists before the crisis.

“They’ll be back soon, everyone wants to visit Phi Phi,” he says. But the Omicron variant, which has already forced several countries to barricade themselves again, could dashed their hopes…and still give marine life some breathing space.

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