STanning on the crowded corso of Ton Sai Bay last Saturday, it was hard to see that Thai tourism was in the doldrums. Hordes of visitors – sandals and smartphones held aloft – made amphibious landings from an armada of tourist boats and marched up the beach.
Ton Sai is where day-trippers to Phi Phi Don, the largest island in the Phi Phi group of islands, stop for lunch at two cacophonous shed-like restaurants, designed for large numbers of people to eat effectively cheap buffets. Then they pack the beach for the obligatory selfies, looking for a few square feet of deserted sand to preserve Phi Phi’s Instagram myth as a sunny haven of gorgeous influencers in straw felt and diaphanous beachwear — not one place invaded by humanity.
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And yet, for a childish Thai guide standing nearby, sporting floppy bangs and a chunky earring, the sight is unsettling. He exhales through gritted teeth and says the crowd is “not even half” what it was before the pandemic hit in early 2020.
“The Chinese aren’t there,” confirms one visitor, a soft-spoken Shanghainese expat who has lived in the UK, scanning faces mainly from the Middle East, South Asia and Europe. Beijing’s draconian COVID restrictions have dried up Thailand’s biggest tourist market. Its revival is eagerly awaited by all levels of the kingdom’s tourism industry, but will world-renowned islands like Phi Phi be able to cope with the status quo?
The fate of Phi Phi’s most renowned attraction, Maya Bay, is a warning sign.
This photo taken on April 9, 2018 shows tourists sunbathing and walking on Maya Bay, Phi Phi, Thailand
LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP via Getty Images
The dangers of overtourism
Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh is famous as the location of Danny Boyle’s 2000 film The beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Part of the Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park, the stunning cove is surrounded by dramatic cliffs and has a magnificent 250-meter white crescent that is the platonic ideal of a beach.
In the film’s wake, the trickle of visitors to Maya Bay has become a deluge. Up to 4,000 people arrived each day on flotillas of tourist boats which damaged the coral and scared off the blacktip sharks which used the bay as a breeding ground. Crowds trampled the delicate seabed. To stop further damage, authorities closed Maya Bay to tourists in June 2018.
When it reopened in January this year, visitors were limited to 380, not per day, but per hour. Approaches by boat were prohibited, as was swimming. Tourists had to disembark at a pontoon dock in nearby Loh Sama Bay and then walk to Maya. It was not enough. Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa said even with the new measures, Maya Bay was “flooded” above Songkran, the country’s New Year holiday in April.
At the beginning of August, the famous cove was closed again for two months, coinciding with the low season. It is the local equivalent of the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Colosseum in Rome.
Wave conditions permitting, tourist boats now float at the entrance to the bay for a few minutes, so disappointed passengers can take photos from a distance, then head out to Pileh Lagoon. The latter is another social media hotspot, where it’s easy to see why tourism is both a blessing and a curse for these small islands. In Pileh, party boats blaring blaring music moor beneath dramatic limestone escarpments, while giddy day-trippers plunge into water that has seen better days. Plastic bottles and cigarette butts wash up against the rocks.
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Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a marine scientist at Kasetsart University in Bangkok and an expert on Maya Bay, told TIME that 70 to 80 percent of the coral reefs in the cove were intact 30 years ago. When the bay was closed in 2018, only 8% of the reefs were alive. During the three-year closure, Thon and others replanted tens of thousands of new pieces of coral, and about 50% of them survived.
But it can be difficult, if not impossible, to undo decades of damage. “As a marine scientist, if you’re trying to permanently close the bay, that’s my happiness,” says Thon. But he concedes that in Thailand, where tourism accounts for around a fifth of GDP, preserving marine ecosystems can mean misery for local people.
The two popular departure points for the islands are Phuket and Krabi, just an hour and 45 minutes respectively from Phi Phi by speedboat. The importance of foreign holidaymakers to both places cannot be overstated.
On the streets of Phuket, tourism is seemingly all there is: every storefront seems to offer boat tours, taxi services, car and scooter rentals, visa runs, strong cocktails, snorkels, massages, boba tea, plates of Pad Thai or laundry detergent. Sometimes they offer all of the above, in signs written in English, Russian and Chinese.
Because of the pandemic, “we haven’t had any income for two years,” says an operator, who books tours, runs a mini laundromat and drives tourists in his family Toyota. “Fortunately, we were able to rent out our house, otherwise we would have had no income.”
Women pose for a photo in front of a sign at Patong Beach on the Thai island of Phuket on October 28, 2021, as the country prepares to welcome visitors fully vaccinated against the Covid-19 coronavirus without quarantine from November 1.
MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP via Getty Images
Thailand and sustainable travel
Andrew Hewett, who runs the Phi Phi Island Coral Nursery, sees no major benefit from Maya Bay’s current two-month closure. He says a high season shutdown would be more effective: “Closing it during a busy period, then you reduce the impact considerably.” Tour operators should also be aware of the bay’s sustainable capacity, adds Hewett.
It will not be an easy task. Phi Phi tours are marketed as sybaritic photo opportunities instead of mindful expeditions to ecologically threatened locations. They are also affordable. A full-day guided tour of Phi Phi from Phuket – passing local spots like Monkey Beach, “Viking” Cave and Pileh Lagoon – can be arranged for less than $60 per person, including snorkeling. snorkeling, kayaking, lunch, soft drinks, and snacks added.
Each tour provides income to many people in addition to travel agents, operators and guides. There are minibus drivers who pick you up at your hotel and take you to the pier; boat crews; people who rent snorkels, fins, towels and lounge chairs; the restaurants and all their staff; the old ladies selling coconut ice cream and sticky rice in Ton Sai Bay; hawkers offering bags of chilled pineapples; the local store with its stocks of sun hats and sunscreen; the boatmen who take you around the lagoons on their wooden skiffs; and the freelance photographers who follow you around the islands, capturing your every move, emailing you dozens of thumbnails to look at at the end of the day. Persuading this army of people of the value of moratoriums and quotas will always be an uphill battle.
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According to Edward Koh, visiting professor of tourism at the University of Bangkok, who has studied the effect on Phi Phi islanders of the closure of Maya Bay for years: “I think we have to open at some point – and we will never get it exactly. right.”
Anuar Abdullah, founder of Ocean Quest Global, an organization that has helped repopulate the reefs of Maya Bay, echoes official thinking when he says the cove must ultimately be marketed as a premium destination, not a mass market , with high prices acting as a deterrent.
“The extra price they pay [will] really help protect that heritage,” he told TIME. “If we think of heritage, we think a hundred or two hundred years from now, of future generations. If we don’t put those economies back in place, humanity has nowhere to go.
For people who depend on Phi Phi for their modest livelihood, however, thinking beyond today is hard enough. “Are you happy?” shouts the young Ton Sai tour guide, over the roar of his speedboat as he whisks travelers off to their next stop. “Yes” they answer, with a slight note of uncertainty.
“In Thailand,” he yells, “everyone is happy!
—With reporting by Aidyn Fitzpatrick/Phuket and Phi Phi
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