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Sustainable comeback plot for Phi Phi islands

Sustainable comeback plot for Phi Phi islands

KRABI: While travel stopped and the world locked down, in the dazzling blue waters of the idyllic Phi Phi islands, a gentle renaissance was underway.


Tuesday 7 December 2021, 04:23PM

The government hopes to make Phi Phi the standard-bearer for a new, more sustainable model of tourism. Photo: AFP

The government hopes to make Phi Phi the standard-bearer for a new, more sustainable model of tourism. Photo: AFP

Mass tourism had brought the archipelago, immortalised in Leonardo DiCaprio movie “The Beach”, to the brink of ecological catastrophe.

Now the government hopes to make Phi Phi the standard-bearer for a new, more sustainable model of tourism as the country reopens to visitors after the long COVID shutdown.

Near a coral islet just a few kilometres from Maya Bay - the iconic cove surrounded by towering tree-clad cliffs that was home to the beach paradise of the DiCaprio film - marine biologist Kullawit Limchularat dives through eight metres of crystalline water and carefully releases a young bamboo shark.

His mission: to repopulate the reefs after years of damage caused by uncontrolled visitor numbers, a crisis that got so bad the authorities were forced to close Maya Bay itself in 2018.

Five small brownbanded bamboo sharks are set free, their striped bodies and long tails flickering through the water.

But after being raised in captivity they are reluctant to swim out among the clown fish, barracudas and turtles.

“They need time to adapt. We waited until they reached 30 centimetres to maximise their chance of survival,” says Kullawit, who is working on the project with the Phuket Marine Biological Center.

“The aim is that once they are adults, they will stay and breed here to help repopulate the species.”

Ecological disaster

Before the pandemic, Phi Phi National Marine Park, with its white sandy beaches and coral reefs, attracted more than two million visitors a year.

Until it was closed, Maya Bay’s dazzling beauty and Hollywood fame drew up to 6,000 people a day to its narrow 250-metre long beach.

Inevitably, so many people arriving in noisy, polluting motorboats with so little control over numbers had a huge impact on the area’s delicate ecology.

“The coral cover has decreased by more than 60% in just over 10 years,” says Thon Thamrongnawasawat of Kasetsart University in Bangkok.

As early as 2018, Thon raised the alarm and pushed the authorities to close part of the bay.

Then the pandemic hit and visitor numbers dwindled to virtually nil as Thailand imposed tough travel rules, putting the entire archipelago into a forced convalescence.

As a result, dozens of blacktip sharks, green turtles and hawksbill turtles have returned.

And whale sharks, the world’s largest fish and listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), have been spotted off the coast.

“Everything suggests that there is more reproduction, especially among sharks, which particularly appreciate calm waters,” says Mr Thon.

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”.

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But recovery will be slow: at least two decades will be needed to restore the coral reef, Mr Thon warns.

Phi Phi is slowly resuming tourism, still mostly local for now, but foreigners are returning as Thailand eases its draconian rules for visitors, and Maya Bay is due to reopen on Jan 1.

The government has said it wants to move on from the country’s history of hedonistic mass tourism, with Tourism Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn saying the focus would be on “high-end travellers, rather than a large number of visitors”.

On Phi Phi, national park chief Pramote Kaewnam insists the mistakes of the past will not be repeated.

Boats will no longer be allowed to moor near the beach and will instead drop tourists off at a jetty away from the cove. Tours will be limited to one hour, with a maximum of 300 people per tour.

“Maya Bay used to bring in up to $60,000 a day, but this huge income cannot be compared to the natural resources we have lost,” Mr Pramote said.

The number of visitors will be regulated on other key sites of the archipelago, while boats anchoring on reefs and tourists feeding fish face US$150 (B5,000) fines.

Some of the first foreign visitors to return to the area are happy with the new more exclusive approach.

“We didn’t just come to dive in the turquoise water. We also want to help,” says Franck, a visitor who has just arrived from Paris.

“It would be fantastic if the island stayed this quiet.”

Local businesses face the challenge of adapting to the new model. For some, the change is welcome.

“We need the revenue from tourism, but we also need to educate them to be good tourists. We all understood that with the pandemic,” says Sirithon Thamrongnawasawat, Singha Estate Vice President for Sustainability and Development.

Singha Estate, which owns a 200-room hotel on the island and has built a marine centre dedicated to the archipelago’s ecosystem, is financing several projects, including the replanting of coral and the breeding of bamboo sharks and clown fish.

But the enthusiasm is not shared by all 2,500 inhabitants of the archipelago, many of whom have built livelihoods around tourism and hope to see visitors return soon.

Pailin Naowabutr has been plying the waters of the archipelago for seven years, ferrying tourists on his longtail boat.

“Before COVID, I was making 1,000 baht a day. Since then, I’ve had to do a lot of odd jobs for less than 300 baht,” he told AFP.

He gazes wistfully across the sea towards Phuket, Phi Phi’s much larger neighbour which used to welcome millions of tourists.

“They will soon come back, everyone wants to visit Phi Phi,” he says.

But the Omicron COVID variant, which has led some countries to reintroduce travel restrictions, could ruin his hopes - and give the islands’ wildlife a little more time to recover.

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DeKaaskopp | 11 December 2021 - 11:32:22

@chrispy   "resorts to BS stats". Because you don't like those stats they are Bs?  Educate yourself and google it before coming up with more nonsense.

christysweet | 10 December 2021 - 22:02:48

Not only incapable of civil discourse but resorts to  BS  stats. China creates the vast amount of mismanaged waste,  and Thailand about 3 x that of USA. One only has to have functioning eyes to see how grotesque the waste problem in Trashland is. 

Kurt | 10 December 2021 - 17:36:14

@Christysweet, just ignore CheeseHead. It is well known that international environment organisations point fingers to Thailand as 1 of the most sea/ocean plastic pollutants. Anyway, just look around on Phuket, the pollution grins you in your face everywhere. It's the life style here to ignore everywhere dumping.

DeKaaskopp | 10 December 2021 - 14:11:37

@Christy   As you come from the country who is the leading polluter regarding plastic waste per capita worldwide, you definitely know what you are talking about. Lol ! 

christysweet | 09 December 2021 - 22:43:07

 I make my strongly worded opinions resonate without need for insults or diminishing others. Try it. 

Capricornball | 08 December 2021 - 20:44:18

Just wait...I have yet to see Thailand properly manage anything, especially the natural environment. When faced with conservation vs money...the baht always prevails. And yeah...funny that Khun whomever thinks tourists need to learn how to "good".  That statement alone proves what a clueless w****r he is. @ DeK - at least Christy calls a spade a spade and doesn't mince her words

DeKaaskopp | 08 December 2021 - 15:00:09

'Welcome to Trash-land"  Christy, you forgot to mention all that trailer trash living as expats in Thailand. So many of them here.Some even keep horses.

Kurt | 08 December 2021 - 11:35:25

Doctor Thon says that it takes 2 decades to restore the reefs around Phi Phi. Let's hope the Thai Officials with dollar signs in their eyes can resist their financial grab thinking and respect future of their own marine life.

christysweet | 08 December 2021 - 10:21:46

"Educate tourists.."  It ain't tourists that need educating on environmental degradation, it's the locals who value cash above all else and are oblivious  as to how their piles of discarded household trash end up on the beach.  

christysweet | 08 December 2021 - 10:15:09

"High-end" travelers can afford pristine destinations where safety is paramount and they aren't subject to careless operators in  top- heavy, dangerously reconfigured fishing boats heading out under weather advisories.  

christysweet | 08 December 2021 - 10:08:12

Welcome to Trash-land!  Just throw your trash on the ground and run your sewage into the sea, we do !!  Enjoy your stay and thank you for visiting Trash-land.

Kurt | 07 December 2021 - 20:42:51

It looks like the 2500 'inhabitants' are the greatest threat to Phi Phi. So far I not read a solid plan/orders of the Government to block preventing these inhabitants returning to old normal around/on PhiPhi. For Phi Phi environment are Covid-19 variants a great thing.

Kurt | 07 December 2021 - 20:36:06

A lot of wise environment professionals/supporters doing a great job around Phi Phi. Now we just hope that the 'thai tourist money makers' not overshadow them again, and again  make it a envronment disaster overthere. Fingers crossed than not again it is just money what rules/speaks overthere.


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