COVID-19 helped give Thailand’s Maya Bay a much-needed rest from tourists: NPR
COVID-19 helped give Thailand’s Maya Bay a much-needed rest from tourists: NPR

COVID-19 helped give Thailand’s Maya Bay a much-needed rest from tourists: NPR

A tourist strolls along the white sands of Maya Beach in Thailand. The destination was once overrun by visitors, but thanks in part to the pandemic, its ecosystem has had time to recover.

Michael Sullivan / NPR


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Michael Sullivan / NPR


A tourist strolls along the white sands of Maya Beach in Thailand. The destination was once overrun by visitors, but thanks in part to the pandemic, its ecosystem has had time to recover.

Michael Sullivan / NPR

The Leonardo DiCaprio movie The beach published in 2000 about a fictional island utopia hidden from the outside world, helped make Thailand’s Mayan Bay very popular.

Too popular, it turned out.

When I visited eight years later, Maya Bay was still undeniably beautiful, but also undeniably flooded with tourists and the distinctive longtail boats that brought them – spewing smoke, grinding sediment and dragging their anchors through the corals. Passengers jumped over the side to wade or swim to shore and pollute the water with sunscreen and debris.

Park ranger Suthep Chaikao says that in 2018 things were even worse – with the once pristine bay, the crown jewel in Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Ko Phi Phi National Parkit hosts up to 5,000 visitors a day.

“At that time, I woke up at five in the morning and there would already be boats in the bay,” he says. “The sun wasn’t even up yet, and they were here already. Back then, they also didn’t have a proper opening or closing time so tourists could come whenever they wanted.”

The Thai authorities closed the beach

In June of that year, the Thai government closed Maya Bay due to the devastating impact of mass tourism on the ecosystem. It remained closed for almost four years before reopening in January.

But now there are rules: Pre-booking is required. No more than 375 people are allowed at a time.

No more boats in the bay either. Instead, there is a custom-built dock on the other side of the island to drop off passengers, who then take a short walk through the jungle to the crescent-shaped beach. Tourists can dip their toes in the water for the important selfie, but no more. A dozen rangers patrol the beach whistling offenders out of the water. They are also serious.

The beach at Maya Bay in Thailand is far less crowded than it used to be. Boats are no longer allowed in the bay, but must drop off their passengers at this new custom-built jetty on the other side of the island. Visitors then walk a short distance through the jungle to reach the beach.

Michael Sullivan / NPR


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Michael Sullivan / NPR


The beach at Maya Bay in Thailand is far less crowded than it used to be. Boats are no longer allowed in the bay, but must drop off their passengers at this new custom-built jetty on the other side of the island. Visitors then walk a short distance through the jungle to reach the beach.

Michael Sullivan / NPR

“Today we fined a French tourist 5,000 baht [$175] to swim in the bay, “Suthep explains.” One of the rangers warned him with his whistle, but when he went in for the second time, we had to give him a fine. “

In the few weeks Maya Bay has reopened, Suthep has only had to hand out about a dozen tickets, he says. Thai travel guide Amie Hemthanon says she is surprised and pleased with how her customers have responded.

“I’ve talked to them what to do, what not to do, and luckily my customers are sweet and do what I ask,” she says. “For me, as long as people can follow these rules, it will be fine.”

Blacktip sharks have returned

In the three and a half years since it closed, Maya Bay’s transformation has been amazing, Suthep says. Even the black-headed sharks breed here again, he says.

“Back in 2018, before we closed, one could not even think of seeing a shark,” he says. “You could not even see a three-inch fish. Now, on a good day, you can see over 160 sharks. And when the tide goes down, I can see all the new corals and crabs and shrimp. It makes me very proud. “

The amazing nature and the life of the sea is the reason why the tourists have come. But even some of them seem unprepared for what they find.

“I had never imagined it was so beautiful,” says Susanne Wiegratz, who is visiting from Germany. “Beautiful. Wonderful. I really do not know, my English words are probably not enough for me [say] this most beautiful place on Earth I’ve ever seen. ”

A place where one of her travel companions had to work a lot, much hard to reach.

University student Fenna Tobin tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after her arrival in Thailand. She had to spend the next ten days of her quarantined vacation. It’s her second day out.

The obvious question is: was it worth it?

“Yes,” she says laughing. “Quite.” It’s so, so beautiful. “She fights for the words in English – then sighs deeply.” I’m so calm now. “

The Thai tourist Wararat Phanit-Chakoon is from the nearby Hat Yai province.

“I was waiting for Maya Bay to reopen to come here,” she says. “I knew that if I had come before, I would not have been happy with it.”

She says the water where she lives is nice too. But not like this. “The water is so beautiful, so green and it’s crystal clear.”

“It makes me want to swim,” she says, “but I understand why I can not. I know they care about the sunscreen that affects the reef.”

“I think they did it right,” says Wiegratz, who works in medicine but is a trained marine biologist.

“If you ask me, I would have kept it closed forever for tourists,” she says. She’s worried black tips. “The little ones who grow up here, this needs to be protected. Otherwise we will not have any more sharks – and we still do not have many left.”

Suthep Chaikao is the park ranger in charge of the Maya Bay Tourist Police. He has been here to and from for more than 20 years and is very happy with the new restrictions.

Michael Sullivan / NPR


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Michael Sullivan / NPR


Suthep Chaikao is the park ranger in charge of the Maya Bay Tourist Police. He has been here to and from for more than 20 years and is very happy with the new restrictions.

Michael Sullivan / NPR

Chief ranger Suthep Chaikao is also concerned. He hopes the government continues to limit the number of visitors and does not succumb to the temptation to let more people help kickstart Thailand’s COVID-affected tourism industry. The pandemic caused Thailand to close its borders to foreign tourists for almost two years from March 2020.

The pandemic gave a little extra time to come back

But the extra time turned out to be a blessing for Maya Bay, says marine biologist Thon Thamrongnawasawat from Bangkok’s Kasetsart University. Thon spearheaded efforts to close the bay in 2018 to allow its ecosystem to recover. But he was worried that the original schedule was too short.

“I was very worried that two years might not be enough for corals to grow back in sight. But we got four years, and [now] a lot of little corals are growing, “says Thon.” So now we have evidence to show other people if we give mother nature a chance … she can come back. So the four years mean a lot more than two years. “

He sees no reason why Maya Bay and its ecosystem can not stay healthy and serve as a more sustainable tourism model for the Phi Phi Islands and other nearby destinations, which received nearly two million tourists a year before the pandemic.

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