If you haven’t been there yourself or seen it in tourism ads, you may recognize the iconic Maya Bay from the 2000 film The Beach, by Danny Boyle starring Leonardo DiCaprio. In the movie, Maya Bay is the setting of a jealously guarded secret beach, whose location cannot be exposed to the public because it is too pristine and beautiful to ruin with tourists.
This actually turned out to be the Thai Government’s thinking in June of 2018 when they decided to close the popular tourist destination for ocean protection and to allow the Maya Bay ecosystem time to recover.
A sustainable move: The Phi Phi Model
In a country that is heavily reliant on tourism, this decision could not have been made lightly, especially when Thailand’s tourism was already suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic. The move came though as part of a bigger ecological initiative by the Thai Government called the Phi Phi Model, named after the Phi Phi Islands where Maya Bay rests.
The Phi Phi Model is an ecological restoration measure meant to ensure healthy Phi Phi Island ecosystems while maintaining responsible, sustainable tourism. It seems to mark a change in tourism which espouses an ethic of visiting a destination in the name of protecting it.
“Of course, the most important people are those who bring tourists to Maya Bay. As long as they feel like protecting it, love it and explain the rules for tourists to follow, it’ll be fine,” said marine scientist Thon Thamrongnawasawat to Channel News Asia.
The marine life of Maya Bay was in need of restoration after regular tourist seasons of hundreds of boats and up to 5,000 tourists a day had devastated the area.
Reopened Maya Bay
Having reopened on January 1, the bay resembles its original splendor. The waters are crystal clear, resting beneath enormous limestone cliffs and cloudlike white sand. Maya Bay’s restorative time has brought back hundreds of blacktip reef sharks, schools of fish, and over 30,000 colonies of coral, which are critical to ocean health.
Swimming is no longer allowed, boats are not allowed to enter the bay, visitors must book ahead, and only 375 people are allowed to visit at a time. The message and the benefits are clear, however. Tourism in the Phi Phi Islands is now about respecting the nature there and using sustainable economic measures to preserve its beauty so that future generations can see it too.