Maya Bay, ringed by cliffs on Ko Phi Phi Ley island, was made famous when it featured in the 2000 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
It was initially shut for four months in June due to beach erosion and pollution as the white-sand paradise sagged under pressure from thousands of day-trippers arriving by boat.
But a survey of the problem during the temporary ban made clear that the short-term fix was not going to work and that the damage was worse than originally thought.
“We have evaluated each month and found out that the ecological system was seriously destroyed from tourism of up to 5,000 people daily,” Songtam Suksawang, director of the National Parks office, told AFP.
“It’s very difficult to remedy and rehabilitate because its beach was completely destroyed as well the plants which cover it,” he said, adding it was “impossible” for recovery to occur in the allotted time.
He provided photos to AFP showing the degradation of Maya Bay’s shores, where trees and smaller vegetation have been gradually uprooted as its white sands receded.
Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation announced the indefinite closure in a royal gazette published on October 1.
It said the restrictions on tourism would not be lifted until the ecosystem “fully recovers to a normal situation”.
Besides beach erosion, heavy traffic around the azure waters can also damage sensitive coral reefs, already vulnerable to rising sea temperatures and climate change.
Arnaud Simons of Ocean Quest Global, an environmental organisation assisting the government with coral recovery around Maya Bay, said the bay’s rehabilitation could “last for four years at least” and the indefinite closure is “very good news”.
“Over the last few months, the monsoon season and rough sea conditions have indeed hindered the efforts of coral rehabilitation, but we have no doubt that the longer term objectives… will be met.”
– Tourism overload –
Thailand attracted up to 35 million visitors last year, many of whom flocked to Krabi town where boat trips carried visitors to nearby island destinations — of which Maya Bay is a key attraction.
Nanthapat Horbut, who runs a tour company in Krabi, was “disappointed” by the closure as his company had promised Maya Bay to customers booked for Thailand’s tourist high season which begins in November.
“All tourists… want to see Maya Bay, both Chinese and western tourists alike,” Nanthapat said.
Paul Pruangkarn of Pacific Asia Travel Association — a non-profit working with Thai operators to promote responsible tourism — said the decision was a double-edged sword for local communities.
“You need to also consider the livelihoods,” said Pruangkarn. “They still have to feed themselves and support their families.”
“The government has to consider how then can they assist them.”
Countries across the region are waking up to the problems of plastic waste and environmental degradation caused by beach tourism overload.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte announced in April a six-month closure of the popular Boracay beach resort, calling the destination a “cesspool”.
And Indonesia declared a “garbage emergency” last year along a stretch of the resort island of Bali, after coastal pollution was highlighted in a viral video that showed a diver swimming through waters full of trash. DM