Lillian Suwanrumpha and Joe Freeman
Hordes of tourists clamber across the white sand with selfie sticks as Thai park rangers wade into turquoise waters to direct boats charging into the cliff-ringed cove.
Made famous by the 2000 movie The Beach starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Maya Bay on the western Thai island of Koh Phi Phi Ley is now a case study in the ruinous costs of runaway tourism, swamped by up to 4,000 daily visitors.
“There is too many people here, it’s bad,” lamented Saad Lazrak, a 61-year-old from Morocco, as crowds around him swallowed the stretch of sand encircled by an amphitheatre of limestone cliffs.
Across the region, Southeast Asia’s once-pristine beaches are reeling from decades of unchecked tourism as governments scramble to confront trash-filled waters and environmental degradation without puncturing a key economic driver.
Thailand’s Maya Bay will be off limits for four months from June to September, officials announced last month, in a bid to save its ravaged coral reefs.
Conservationists and governments are worried about the health of coral reefs, which are in a dire state globally due to climate change and rising sea temperatures.
When exposed to warmer waters, they shed the algae that dazzle the eye and are vital to marine eco-systems, leaving the corals diseased or bone-white in a process called bleaching.
Environmental stress, including pollution, human contact and exposure to plastics that comes with mass tourism are also major threats to reefs that are part of the draw for snorkellers and scuba-divers.
“Tourism has a series of detrimental effects on coral health,” said Eike Schoenig, a Thailand-based marine biologist at the Center for Oceanic Research and Education.
Countries in Southeast Asia are looking to stem the threats without cutting off the cash flow of a regional tourism boom, led by China, the top source market for travellers to the region.
Thailand received 35 million tourists last year, of whom nearly 10 million hailed from China, according to official data.
But what is good for business can be bad for beaches.
Songtam Suksawang, Thailand’s National Park Office Director, told AFP he inspected the beach at Maya Bay and said it “must definitely be [temporarily] closed” in order to rehabilitate it.