How Thailand’s Maya Bay Is Balancing Tourism With Sustainability

An aerial view of Maya Bay with many boats and speedboats above its coral reef. Photo: Shutterstock
As sightseeing boats headed into the turquoise waters of Maya Bay, a floating buoy rope kept them a few hundred metres away from the glistening beach. Phi Phi Islands’ tropical paradise, has reduced visitors – and sea life is bouncing back.
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Tourists appreciate the beauty from afar before the boats turned back and departed.

These boats then need to navigate around to the back of the bay, where a floating pier has been built for brief stops. From there, tourists disembark and walk along a wooden pathway through the jungle to the white sand beach.

This has now become a common pattern for visitors coming to Phi Phi islands’ famous scenic spot on the Andaman Sea coast.

It’s hard to imagine that just five years ago, the beach was inundated with thousands of speedboats and tourists daily, leaving in their wake a trail of devastation on the coral reef and marine ecosystem, compelling authorities to make the difficult decision to close Maya Bay in mid-2018.

Then, the unexpected arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic also provided this place with a breather and allowed for the restoration of its marine environment.

A buoy forbidding tourist access to Maya beach on Koh Phi Phi Lee, Thailand. Photo: James Wendlinger

“It is one of the most successful marine actions in many years not only for Thailand but for the whole world,” Thon Thamrongnawasawat, deputy dean of the faculty of fisheries at Kasetsart University, said in a phone interview.

According to the marine biologist, under official management, the number of people entering Maya Bay beach has been reduced from around 7,000 per round to just 375, with strict limitations on their activities and length of stay on the island.

Coral at Maya Bay. Picture: Thon Thamrongnawasawat

Tourists are only permitted into shallow waters and stand in a spot where the sea level is below their knees. Thon specifically emphasised this detail as a means of avoiding any disturbance to the coral’s delicate ecosystem.

This regulated form of tourism has resulted in the rapid restoration of the marine environment in Maya Bay. Thon mentioned that he had observed over 100 black-tip reef sharks swimming in the shallow waters of the bay.

The current achievement should give credit to the private sector, which has also played an important role in repairing the island’s ecosystem, Thon said, giving an example of the Marine Discovery Center, the first institution of its kind in Thailand.

A tourist poses for a photo on a boat before a boundary line set by the Thai National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department to close the beach on Maya Bay to visitors on the southern Thai island of Koh Phi Phi, in October 2019. Photo: AFP

Established in 2018, this centre is located within a luxury resort on Phi Phi Don island, serving as a comprehensive institution for education and marine life cultivation.

According to Kullawit Limchularat, sustainability development senior specialist at Singha Estate, the developer of the resort, the centre operates multiple projects such as breeding clownfish and bamboo sharks, in collaboration with government agencies and national parks.

As of now, around 50 clownfish and 25 bamboo sharks have been released back into their natural habitats, including the four sharks that were recently returned to the sea, Kullawit said.

Access point for Phi Phi Leh, an island in Thailand’s Mu Koh Phi Phi National Park, in 2022. Photo: Tamara Hinson

In addition, the centre is open to the local community and schools, organising activities for visitors to participate in beach cleanups and mangrove replanting.

Since its opening, the centre has seen close to 17,000 visitors and has effectively raised awareness among many people, Kullawit said.

As tourism begins to pick up in the Phi Phi islands after the pandemic-induced lull, hotel operators are expecting an influx of tourists later this year.

Saii Resorts cluster general manager Bart Callens has expressed support for the authorities’ efforts to manage visitors in sensitive areas like Maya Bay. He believes that government and local businesses can work together to make the environment better for everyone.

Thon is also optimistic about the current situation. He said that the most challenging part of building a system to balance tourism and ecology is behind them and that the focus now should be on ensuring that the system works effectively in the long term.

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