When The Beach hit theaters, that was the end for Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh. Photo enthusiasts flocked to paradise. Mass tourism and nature conservation do not mix. But there are solutions.
Maya Bay – With a loud “splash,” a tourist drops into the turquoise waters of Maya Bay and smiles blissfully. A whistle sounds through the warm tropical air. Watchdogs on the Thai dream beach make it clear to the man: swimming is no longer allowed.
The times when Leonardo DiCaprio discovered “The Beach” in the film of the same name with his hippie troupe and enjoyed pure freedom there are finally over. But the days of runaway mass tourism in the wake of the Hollywood flick are also a thing of the past.
In June 2018, pressured by environmentalists, the authorities pulled the ripcord and closed the beach from one day to the next. This was preceded by an enormous increase in the already high number of visitors. Countless excursion boats polluted the water, vacationers left their rubbish behind, the coral reefs were badly damaged by anchors and tourists.
“It was very brave to stop all this. A bold decision, but one that we very much welcomed,” says Bart Callens, General Manager of the SAii Phi Phi Village hotel on the neighboring island of Phi Phi Don. The Marine Discovery Center there is active with several projects to help the region’s fragile ecosystem and has been involved in replanting the destroyed corals in Maya Bay.
The bay in the Andaman Sea was supposed to reopen after a few months, but the date was postponed several times – and then Corona came. “The pandemic has given nature the chance to recover fundamentally,” Callens is convinced.
New rules apply on the beach
After three and a half years, “The Beach” has been accessible again since the beginning of the year – but under strict rules. The most important change: Boats are no longer allowed in the bay, nor are swimmers and snorkelers. “Just knee deep and not a step further” is the motto. Anyone who violates this will be called off. The result: the view of the crystal-clear sea and the picture-perfect hills arranged in a circle is finally clear again. Small black tip sharks swim just in front of the shore. trash on the beach? None, “That’s nice!” and “That looks just like in the movie!” exclaims enthusiastic visitors.
The boats must now dock on the other side of the island. From there it takes only a few minutes over wooden walkways to Maya Bay, where the new rules can be read on large signs. At no time are more than 375 people allowed to be on the beach – that sounds like a lot at first, but before the closure, several thousand often trudged through the white sand at the same time.
consequences for the ecosystem
Marine biologist Kullawit Limchularat said more than 2,500 staghorn coral fragments were planted during the closure in an elaborate project to support the badly damaged ecosystem. This species is particularly resilient. “Under good conditions, these corals can also grow an impressive ten centimeters per year,” explains the expert. “The reef off Phi Phi Leh is in very good condition again, the corals are developing splendidly.”
When people stayed away, the fish dared to come back: The first blacktip sharks returned after just over a year, which amazed even marine biologists. A type of crab, which is called “Pu Kai” in Thailand, is also scurrying through the sand for the first time in decades. “It is a real miracle that Maya Bay is doing so well again. And that’s what happens when we give nature a chance,” says Limchularat.
Other paradisiacal places around the world also show what mass tourism can do – and how authorities are now giving priority to nature conservation. Some examples:
The Maya Empire has its own Maya Bay, namely a small beach called Playa Escondida (Hidden Beach), also known as Playa del Amor (Beach of Love). It lies offshore in a rocky group of islands in the Pacific. The special feature: The white sandy beach is hidden in a cave with a collapsed ceiling. To reach it, you first have to swim through a rock tunnel.
Nevertheless, so many tourists came that the Playa had to be closed for four months in 2016 because of the damage it caused. After the corals were restored, it reopened, but under strict rules. Only 116 visitors are allowed daily – a maximum of 15 at the same time and for a half-hour stay. Snorkeling and diving is prohibited.
Music can also ruin nature. This is shown by a picturesque canyon in Iceland with the beautiful name Fjadrárgljúfur: After it was seen in the music video for “I’ll show you” by pop star Justin Bieber in 2015 and then mutated into a tourist hotspot, it is now used regularly to protect nature blocked – at least temporarily. The damage is mainly due to visitors leaving the marked paths and disregarding signs to follow in Bieber’s footsteps through the once-pristine landscape. This is also risky for the tourists who do not know how to assess the sometimes dangerous nature of Iceland.
Tour operators now have clear rules: “Don’t climb over the ropes. Never step on the moss, even if others have done it before you. Don’t follow the detours of others.” Meanwhile, the Icelandic Environment Agency is tirelessly trying to restore the vegetation. This work is likely to take decades – because of a three and a half minute music video.
Before the pandemic, 270,000 tourists a year traveled to the remote Pacific archipelago. The islands belonging to Ecuador are considered El Dorado for nature lovers because of their unique flora and fauna. Clear rules should prevent damage caused by mass tourism. A visit to the national park is only possible with certified guides and only on marked paths.
Camping is only permitted with a special permit at special locations, and water sports such as jet skis are completely prohibited. However, the greatest threat to the ecosystem of the islands, which are around 1,000 kilometers from the mainland, are animal and plant species that have been introduced. That’s why baggage is strictly checked. Many products such as cereals and certain fruits are not allowed to be imported to protect the endemic species. dpa
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