The sand was like powdered sugar beneath my feet and the water was a gorgeous, crystal-clear turquoise. Limestone karsts shielded the bay dramatically on both sides, creating a basin dotted with Thai long-boats and snorkeling tourists. For someone who tended to be underwhelmed by beaches in general, this one took my breath away…
If you’ve thought about visiting (or have visited) Thailand, you’ve probably heard of Maya Bay. Originally made famous by the 2000 film “The Beach,” the bay is cut into the eastern coast of Koh Phi Phi Le, the second largest of the Phi Phi islands in Thailand’s Andaman Sea. Based on Alex Garland’s book of the same title, “The Beach” stars Leonardo DiCaprio and tells the dark tale of a group of Western backpackers who decide to live in a lagoon paradise in southern Thailand.
Maya Bay’s natural environment was an afterthought to 20th Century Fox. The crew culled the beach of plants and landscaped the sand dunes in an effort to make the area appear more stereotypically tropical. Though Fox insists it went through great pains to ensure that the beach appeared untouched upon their departure, environmentalists believe that Maya Bay never recovered from the production’s environmental degradation.
Now, almost 20 years since “The Beach” hit theaters, Maya Bay is once again the subject of international news. In June 2018, the Thai government announced that the bay would be closing for four months due to overtourism and its resulting environmental degradation; Conservationists estimate that around 80 percent of the reef around the bay has been destroyed due to sunscreen, litter, carelessly dropped anchors, boat pollution, and snorkelers. Though this seems extreme, it is unsurprising when you consider the numbers: on average, Maya Bay saw over 5,000 tourists (on roughly two hundred boats) every day. And while camping on the island was outlawed in 2012 in an effort to help rehabilitate the already degraded environment, most travelers adapted by hopping on long-boats or taking day tours from Koh Phi Phi Don.
The four-month rehabilitation period announced in June was extended indefinitely in October by Songtham Sukswang, director of Thailand’s Office of National Parks. Sukswang told Reuters that the site — which includes coral reefs, mangroves, and the beach — needed “at least a year or even up to two years or maybe more for the environment to recover.”
Readers may wonder why Maya Bay was not closed sooner — after all, to continue welcoming upwards of 1.8 million tourists a year, despite the site’s collapsing natural environment, seems irresponsible at best. Unfortunately, money talks, and up until recently, it tended to speak louder than any conservationist or national parks officer: Maya Bay raked in around 400 million baht ($12.78 million USD) each year, making it a huge revenue stream for Thailand’s tourism-based economy.
Thankfully, at a time when the Sahara Desert gets snowfall and wildfires happen both in and out of “season”, environmentalism is slowly gaining more and more public attention. Similar to the Maya Bay case, the Filipino party island of Boracay was closed to visitors for six months starting in April 2018, and a new ticketing system was recently introduced in an effort to control crowd size at Machu Picchu.
While these policies are a step in the right direction, the responsibility to reverse environmental degradation and combat the effects of overtourism do not solely rest with the government that holds dominion over a particular site. Tourists and travelers must also do their part. The good news is that while this may sound involved and overwhelming, doing your part takes little effort and can be boiled down to simply treating all natural environments with respect.
So, how can you help?
Firstly, though we all know that tourist hubs attract visitors for a reason, consider venturing off the tourist track. Do greater research before booking your next trip and talk to locals once you’re there. Thailand is a beautiful country with roughly 2,000 miles of coastline — it’s highly improbable that Maya Bay is the only beach with powder-white sand, turquoise waters, and limestone karsts. Besides, finding another beach may mean getting to chat with the people who live nearby, or even having the place all to yourself.
If going off the tourist track isn’t an option for you, then do your best to treat all famous sites with respect. Buy coral-safe sunscreen to conserve the reefs, pack up all of your trash and waste, and leave all sand, shells, and other “mementos” in their natural habitats. As tempting as it is the take home a souvenir, doing so only adds to beach erosion. This applies to other environments as well, where taking flowers, sticks, or rocks may disrupt wildlife (such as bees or other animals dependent on certain plants for food or shelter) and lead to soil erosion.
It is imperative that visitors are aware of their surroundings when visiting fragile natural environments. Accidentally destroying coral when getting off a long-boat is easy when you’re not paying attention, as is leaving marked trails and crushing delicate plants under your shoes. Though it only takes a moment for these things to happen, the rehabilitation process can be long — coral only grows 0.2 to 8 inches (0.5 to 20 centimeters) each year.
Overtourism and its resulting environmental degradation is something we need to be cognizant of when traveling to popular destinations. The world has become small in a way it wasn’t only 10 or 15 years ago, and as amazing as the surge of tourism has been for curious visitors and tourism-based economies, we must remember that protecting and respecting natural environments is an important shared responsibility.
As for Maya Bay, all hope is not lost. At the beginning of December, park officials shared footage of dozens of black-tipped reef sharks re-entering the bay. Thai conservationists are taking it as a positive sign and are overwhelmed by the progress that has been made in such a short period of time. Though there is still much rehabilitation to be done, the environment is healing — slowly. With a little patience, it will hopefully make a full recovery.
Want to learn more about sustainable travel and how you can make a difference both at home and on the road? Click here.