'The beach' gets makeover
SLOWLY DYING: Bleached reefs at Yong Kasem (Big Monkey) Bay are seen on Koh Phi Phi Don.
It was a bold move for the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation to close Maya Bay, a world-famous beach, for two years to allow the local ecosystems to recover.
Maya Bay, a tiny cove located in the Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Koh Phi Phi Marine National Park is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country and possibly one of the most famous in the world.
Closing it means huge losses to the local economy. According to the National Park Office under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, the Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Koh Phi Phi Marine National Park in Krabi province brings in more revenue than any other national park in the country.
Thailand has 154 national parks that bring in a total revenue of 2.3 billion baht. Revenue from visitors to this park alone totalled 555 million baht, or about a quarter of overall national park revenue, during the latest tourist season from October 2017 to June 2018.
Maya Bay has become an international tourism magnet, luring visitors from all over the world who want to visit the park. The cove is just 250 metres long and 15 metres wide. The park’s popularity skyrocketed after the release of the Hollywood film The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, almost 20 years ago.
By 2017, the daily number of visitors was almost 5,000, but the department estimated that the bay and island could only accommodate 2,400 tourists per day. In total, 1.38 million tourists visited the bay in 2016, and 1.65 million visited in 2017.
Songtham Suksawang, director of the Department of National Parks told the Bangkok Post that it took two years of campaigning to convince local people and the tourism sector to cooperate with the department.
The evidence of environmental degradation was too obvious to ignore, he said. Garbage covered the island, the coral reefs were dying and sea animals disappeared.
“They [business operators] see that the ship is sinking, and everything will die if no one does anything. They finally agreed to our plan to close it,” Mr Songtham said.
Last week, the department announced it would close Maya Bay for two years but would leave other islands in the national park open to visitors. The temporary closure followed a trial closure that started in June 2017.
Salty swim: A visitor snorkels above the coral reef next to Phi Phi Island in this file picture.
LET’S BITE THE BULLET
The temporary closure of the Maya Bay would have been impossible without the cooperation of locals, especially local tourism operators.
Prasert Wongna, head of Ao Nang Tambon Administration Organisation in
Krabi, said small tourism operators will be the hardest hit by the closure.
“Small, long-tail boats that run day trips will suffer the most. There are around 500-600 small boats that take visitors to the bay. Each makes around 2,500-3,000 baht per day, so just imagine their financial losses over the course of two years,” Mr Prasert said.
Despite the loss of money, Mr Prasert said local operators know that the ecology of Maya Bay has been harmed and needs time to heal.
“The local tourism club agreed that Maya Bay needed to closed to help it recover. All we needed was a clear-cut policy. If the bay was going to close, local operators needed to know when the closure would begin and what would be done to make the bay return to the splendid form it was once in,” he said.
“I agreed with the plan to close the bay. We need to protect every inch of it so that we can pass it on to the next generation.”
Mr Prasert said local operators now want to know what the department will do to help Maya Bay recover.
“The government cannot just close it then reopen it. It needs to change its ways. We hope the authority will ban boats from throwing anchors into the sea.
“Hopefully, the government will order all boats and visitors to access Maya Bay by entering the island at Lo Sama Bay and walk to the bay instead. If you want to save coral and the bay, you also have to prohibit speed boats from entering,” he said.
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Mr Prasert said the government should focus on more than just the Maya Bay. “There is environmental degradation at other islands and beaches in this national park. The government must help to protect these areas too,” he said.
BIRD’S EYE VIEW: Maya Bay will be closed for the next two years. Thon Thamrongnawasawat’s Facebook page.
Sirikorn Boonyasiri, president of the Upper Southern Tourism Operators Group, under the Thai Travel Agents Association (TTAA) told the Bangkok Post that tour operators will be able to recover from the Maya Bay closure.
“Operators suffered during the first days of the closure, then they learned to adapt and adjust by creating alternative routes,” she said.
Operators and the Tourism Authority of Thailand helped promote alternative destinations such as Koh Pai, Monkey Bay, and nearby diving sites.
“For now, the hardest-hit group will be the vendors and operators who do business exclusively in Maya Bay. Tour guides will have to take tourists to nearby areas. So, we expect to see more new destinations in the Andaman Sea being promoted and created during the two-year closure,” she said.
Poomkitti Raktairngam, president of the Phuket Tourism Operators Association praised the government’s decision to close the bay for two years.
“The tourism industry has made a lot of money from Maya Bay and the surrounding nature, so it’s time to let nature rest. We understand the necessity of this policy, but the government must provide relief measures or assistance to local operators as well,” he said.
PARADISE LOST: Tourists sit on Maya Bay’s beach while speedboats haul in new visitors. Boats are partly to blame for damage to the coral reef.
THE FUTURE OF MAYA BAY
Following the closure, the department will implement a major rehabilitation plan. During the two-year closure, construction projects will get under way.
A boardwalk will be built to provide access for tourists to walk from Lo Sama Bay to Maya Bay, and toilets, clean water sources and homes for officials will be built.
Thanya Nethithammakul, head of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation said speed boats will no longer be allowed to enter Maya Bay, and parking boats in front of the beach will be banned.
Officials are also planning to build a pier at the nearby Lo Sama Bay, so tourists can reach Maya Bay from there.
“Maya Beach will be the pilot project for sustainable development in marine sites after it reopens to the public. All management decisions will be made to help the marine ecological system sustain itself. We have set a goal to limit the number of tourists to 2,000 per day,” Mr Thanya said.
To control or reduce the number of tourists, the department might have to increase the entry fee or limit the number of visitors, as well as the amount of time that they can spend in the area.
Tourist boats will be required to install digital trunked, or two-way radio systems to communicate with authorities.
The department also plans to use an e-ticketing system to monitor and control the number of visitors. The e-ticketing system will also help with corruption issues, Mr Thanya said.
He added the department has trained over 12,000 local guides on how to educate tourists about activities that could be harmful to the marine ecosystem.
“Our new challenge is to make tourists think that the national park is not just a place for refreshment and travel, but also a place to learn and appreciate the value of nature,” he said.
“I am confident that everything will be ready within two years. Maya Bay has become an international issue for conservation, and many countries are now learning from us how to manage a high number of tourists in a fragile environment,” he said.
The department earlier issued a questionnaire to 419 foreign visitors, 406 of whom agreed that the bay should be closed for recovery.
Some 110 said it should be closed forever, while 69 said it should close for five years and 63 for 10 years. About 320 people who answered said they were aware of the Maya Bay closure.