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Thailand: the Phi Phi Islands, devastated by mass tourism, promise to reinvent themselves

The archipelago has been licking its wounds since the pandemic and the authorities are promising to invent another development model there. Time is running out: its famous Maya Bay, immortalized by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film “The Beach” and forced to close in 2018 to avoid an ecological disaster, must reopen on January 1.

Off the iconic beach, five bamboo sharks, two males and three females, are launched. Born in captivity, the small sharks, with striped bodies and long tails, are reluctant to sneak past clownfish, barracudas and sea turtles.

“They need time to adapt. We waited for them to reach 30 centimeters to optimize their chance of survival”, explains to AFP the biologist Kullawit Limchularat, known as Aum, who is carrying out the operation in partnership with the Center of marine biology in Phuket (south).

A female lays eggs once a month. “The goal is for it to stay and reproduce here and participate in the repopulation of the species”, “near threatened” according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The Phi Phi Marine National Park, its white sand beaches and coral reefs, attracted more than two million visitors each year before the pandemic.

environmental disaster

The human impact, the overabundance of motorboats, the lack of regulation on these islands, which are nevertheless classified as “national parks”, combined with global warming, have led to an environmental disaster.

Maya Bay saw up to 6,000 people pouring in a day on its narrow 250-meter-long beach. “The coral cover there has decreased by more than 60% in just over 10 years,” notes Thon Thamrongnawasawat of Kasetsart University in Bangkok. In 2018, the scientist sounded the alarm bell and pushed the authorities to close part of the bay, also degraded by erosion.

The pandemic then plunges the entire archipelago into forced convalescence. Since then, dozens of blacktip sharks, green or hawksbill turtles have been moving in the shallow waters. Whale sharks, the largest fish in the world, in danger of extinction, have been spotted off the coast.

“Everything suggests that there is more reproduction, especially among sharks who like calm waters,” notes Thon Thamrongnawasawat. As for the corals, “more than 40% of the fragments replanted in Maya Bay have survived, a very satisfactory figure obtained thanks to the absence of visitors”.

But recovery will be slow. At least two decades will be needed to restore the coral reef, warns the biologist.

Regulation

Phi Phi is timidly reviving tourism, which is still essentially local – even if the drastic travel restrictions for foreign visitors wishing to go to Thailand have recently been relaxed. And Maya Bay is due to reopen from January 1, after more than three years of closure. No one wants to repeat the mistakes of the past, says Pramote Kaewnam, director of the national park.

Boats will not be allowed to dock near the beach and will drop tourists off at a jetty away from the cove. Visits will be limited to one hour, with a maximum of 300 people per tour. “Maya Bay brought us up to 60,000 dollars a day. But these enormous revenues cannot be compared to the natural resources that we have lost”, notes the director.

The number of visitors will also be regulated at other key sites in the archipelago. And beware of boats wanting to anchor on the coral reefs or tourists having fun feeding the fish, they will be liable to a fine of 150 dollars.

– “Upscale travelers” –

Phi Phi must inspire the whole kingdom. The government now wants to focus on quality, “attracting high-end travelers, rather than large numbers of visitors”.

Local businesses to adapt. “We need tourism revenue, but we also need to educate. We have all understood this with the pandemic,” said Sirithon Thamrongnawasawat, vice-president of sustainable development at Singha Estate.

The group, owner of a 200-room hotel on the island of Thailand, has built a marine center there dedicated to the ecosystem of the archipelago and finances several projects, the replanting of corals, the breeding of bamboo sharks and clown fish subsequently released into the sea.

The first foreign visitors to return to the region seem delighted with this new approach. “We didn’t just come to dive in the turquoise water. We also want to help,” says Franck, before helping to clean up the nearby mangrove. “It would be great if the island remained so depopulated.” But the 2,500 inhabitants of the archipelago have seen their income collapse with the pandemic and hope to see customers return quickly.

Pailin Naowabutr has been scouring the waters of Phi Phi for seven years ferrying tourists aboard his longtail boat. “Before the Covid, I earned 30 dollars a day. I had to stop and multiply the odd jobs for less than 10 dollars”. The sailor went back to sea recently. He fixes, nostalgic, the horizon, direction Phuket, the big sister at one hour by speedboat which welcomed millions of tourists before the crisis.

“They will be back soon, everyone wants to visit Phi Phi,” he says. But the Omicron variant, which has already forced several countries to barricade themselves again, could ruin their hopes… and still give marine life some respite.

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