Maya Bay, Thailand (CNN) — It’s simply previous 7 a.m. on a February morning in Maya Bay, a number of weeks after authorities reopened what’s one in all Thailand’s most fashionable vacationer points of interest to the world for the primary time since June 2018 following an enormous rehabilitation program.
A lone vacationer walks alongside the shore, the towering limestone monoliths showing to drift over the floor of the water, their bases eroded by hundreds of thousands of years of lapping salt water. In the gap, blacktip sharks swim by way of the bay, their fins breaking the floor.
It’s a surreal scene, having this spectacular cove largely to oneself.
In the hours to comply with, a gradual however regular trickle of arrivals turns into a deluge as dozens of vacationers trudge down a newly erected boardwalk, making their approach to the celebrated white-sand beach, telephones on the prepared as they take selfies and pose for pictures.
Those who enterprise quite a lot of steps into the water are met with loud whistles from a park official overlooking the beach from a sheltered lifeguard tower nestled within the timber edging the sand; swimming is just not allowed, although guests can wade a couple of steps in.
But some vacationers are seemingly unable to withstand the aquamarine waters of the bay and try and push the boundaries. One French vacationer is issued a 5,000 baht advantageous (about $137) for repeatedly ignoring the rule.
On the boardwalk, an aged girl furtively smokes a cigarette close to the doorway to the beach — a strictly no smoking space.
It’s disheartening, however an enormous enchancment over what guests as soon as skilled right here.
The beach that was liked to loss of life
Located in Thailand’s Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park, Maya Bay is a part of the uninhabited Phi Phi Leh, one of many two important Phi Phi islands, in Krabi province.
For Thai authorities, balancing the necessity for vacationers — tourism contributed about 20% to Thailand’s GDP previous to the pandemic — with the pressing name to guard the park’s valuable pure assets is an ongoing problem.
“The best solution is nobody comes,” says marine biologist and professor Dr. Thon Thamrongnawasawat.
“If you ask me as a scientist, keep the bay for the sharks. But as we know, the bay is a big tourism spot. So we have to compromise.”
Maya Bay, the situation for the 2000 movie “The Beach,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, turned a vacationer hotspot. In 2018, the Thai authorities closed the bay and started to revive the broken ecosystem. Now it is reopened to vacationers.
Thon is extensively credited with convincing authorities to indefinitely shut the bay 4 years in the past — a controversial determination on the time.
Leading a staff of marine scientists, he labored with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment alongside the non-public sector — particularly, property developer Singha Estates, which has put sustainability on the forefront of its operations — on the huge rejuvenation venture that came about within the absence of vacationers.
“Around 40 years ago, Maya Bay was already a tourism destination, but (mainly) only for Thai tourists — and not so many because you didn’t have speed boats at that time,” Thon says.
“More and more people came. And then there was that movie from Hollywood.”
‘That film’ in fact being “The Beach,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Released in 2000, it centered on a gaggle of backpackers seeking to create their very own non-public utopia on an unbelievably lovely island in Thailand.
As the movie’s recognition grew, so too did vacationers’ want to go to the situation the place a lot of it was shot — Maya Bay.
Over the years, the variety of vacationers elevated from lower than 1,000 to as many as 7,000 or 8,000 guests a day at its peak, says Thon. Many have been daytrippers visiting from close by Phuket. On common, round 5,000 individuals entered the bay every day.
“There were a lot of boats coming in,” he recollects. “I used to check using a drone and I found almost 100 boats at the same time.”
The boats’ propellers whisked sand up onto the coral, their anchors slamming down onto the fragile sea flooring. Incoming vacationers walked on the reef as properly, most unaware of the injury they have been doing.
Thon says they first checked on the corals round 30 years in the past, and 70-80% of the bay’s reef was intact.
Years later, lower than 8% remained.
Aside from vital ecological issues, the vacationer expertise was not a constructive one both. Panoramic views of the gorgeous bay have been blocked by the lengthy line of boats anchored alongside the shore.
Since closing the bay in 2018, Thon and a staff of fellow marine specialists and volunteers have replanted over 30,000 items of coral, a lot of it grown off the coast of a close-by island, Koh Yung.
About 50% of the replanted coral survived — there was some bleaching — and now it is beginning to develop and unfold by itself. As Thon says, “mother nature is doing the job.”
Without the transplanting course of, he says it might take 30-50 years for the reef to regenerate naturally.
Meanwhile, the wildlife additionally returned and has been thriving. Among the animals at present inhabiting the bay are clownfish, lobsters and blacktip sharks, that are innocent to people.
“When we closed the bay, after only three months, the blacktip sharks came back, they keep on mating, some of them give birth … so there are a lot of things happening in Maya Bay, not only the coral reef.”
(See above video for extra on the restoration venture.)
A resurrected bay closes once more
Now, a mere seven months since reopening, Thai authorities are closing Maya Bay as soon as once more.
This time, nonetheless, the closure will solely final two months, from August 1 to September 30, through the monsoon season.
Authorities inform CNN they need to additional enhance the island’s infrastructure and provides the protected space a break from the plenty of vacationers which have already returned to its beautiful shores.
The closure comes as a reminder that quite a lot of effort has been put into rehabilitating this battered attraction, and authorities need to guarantee these strikes weren’t made in useless.
Suthep Chaikaow, present chief of Maya Bay nationwide park, recollects the ambiance earlier than the park was closed in 2018.
“All I can say is that it was terrible,” he tells CNN. “In the past, when tourists tried to take photos, all they could see was the bay, flooded with anchored boats. The views were not beautiful. And the beach was also full of tourists.”
To treatment this, the Department of National Parks has restricted the variety of guests to no more 4,125 individuals per day, allotted into one-hour slots to unfold them out. The first slot is at 7 a.m. and every slot can’t exceed 375 individuals.
Boats can now not enter the bay. Instead, drivers should drop passengers off at a newly constructed jetty set in the back of the island away from the famed cove — all a part of the rejuvenation program designed to keep away from the issues of the previous.
A brand new boardwalk main from the dock cuts by way of the forest, providing a pleasing five-minute stroll by way of the forest to the beach on the opposite aspect of the slim island.
And that swimming ban? The park director says there are a couple of causes they need to maintain vacationers out of the water. For one, they’ll disturb the sharks. Also, he says some vacationers usually are not good at swimming, and should step on the corals that scientists labored so laborious to regrow.
“The corals can be broken, our natural resources could again disappear,” he says.
The present setup is a adequate compromise.
“I feel very glad when I see visitors are happy. The before and after of (Maya Bay) are so much different… it’s encouraged us to preserve this area.”
Tourists CNN spoke with appear to agree.
“It’s like paradise,” says Nicole, a German traveler visiting Maya Bay for the primary time.
“It’s a very good thing to do,” says one Thai vacationer from Bangkok of the brand new guidelines. “For those who have not been, I recommend it as a once in a lifetime thing to see.”
As for the criticisms the federal government confronted when closing the bay 4 years in the past, a transfer that minimize into the pockets of the numerous tour operators that organized journey to the bay, park chief Suthep says most have since come round.
“The only thought of business operators was to have as much tourists as they could,” he recollects. “But after the shutdown, they sent representatives to witness the area. It was very surprising for them, they said if they knew it would turn out this way, we should have done it a long time ago. They have been cooperative.”
Protection by way of schooling
Owned by Singha Estates, its marine scientists labored carefully with Thon on the Maya Bay restoration venture — all a part of a broader intention to usher in a brand new period of sustainable tourism in Thailand.
Among them is marine biologist Kullawit Limchularat, sustainability growth supervisor for Singha Estates. He says the Maya Bay venture is the most seen a part of their efforts to guard and revive all the space’s valuable underwater life, however they’re additionally invested in different vital works to enhance the area.
“The local community is the one who lives here. They need to know what did they have and how important it is to protect,” says Kullawit.
As a part of the SOS program, employees handle each stage of the bamboo sharks’ growth.
First, the juvenile bamboo shark embryos are delivered to the middle from the Phuket Marine Biology Center. The embryos take round 90 days to hatch.
When they attain 30 centimeters, they’re moved to the larger shark tank, the place they will reside for one more three months earlier than they’re launched into the ocean.
Bamboo sharks are important to the well being of Thailand’s coral reefs, however populations have decreased lately, prompting a breeding program on Koh Phi Phi island.
The heart additionally breeds and releases a much more acquainted fish that makes its residence in Thai waters — the clownfish, or just “Nemo fish” as most Thais discuss with them colloquially because of the recognition of Disney’s “Finding Nemo.”
Kullawit says the captively bred clownfish within the heart’s tanks shall be launched if native populations are depleted.
CNN joined Kullawit and different employees from the resort on an expedition to launch the newest totally grown bamboo sharks earlier this 12 months. (See video above.)
In accordance with Thai legal guidelines, the sharks can’t be launched in nationwide marine park waters because the sharks have been bred in captivity, says Kullawit. Instead, the staff should cruise a number of hours away to waters exterior the protected space to a tiny, rocky outcrop often called Koh Mah — or Dog Island.
“We found that around this area has a lot of coral, and this is a perfect place for the bamboo shark, because this shark is the reef species, but they stay in the bottom,” says the marine scientist as he prepares to launch a number of of the sharks bred within the heart.
Carried right down to their new residence by a staff of scuba divers, the sharks are timid at first, and reluctant to go away their brightly coloured baskets. Eventually, they swim away, slowly.
“The bamboo shark is a small species,” says Kullawit. “They are not aggressive and play an important role in the environment because they are a predator. They will control the weak prey like weak octopus, weak small fish… the environment of the coral reef will be stronger.”
Bamboo shark numbers have declined lately as a result of fishing practices and habitat destruction, placing reefs like this one in jeopardy.
“If we do not have sharks, the ecology of the reef will be destroyed. When we release them, we feel like we give something back to nature.”
“I will keep my eye on Maya Bay”
Boats can now not enter the bay. Instead, drivers should drop passengers off at this newly constructed floating jetty set in the back of the island.
Prior to the pandemic, Chinese vacationers have been the most important supply marketplace for Thailand’s tourism trade.
When the plenty of worldwide vacationers finally do return at pre-pandemic ranges, park officers’ dedication to sustainability shall be put to the check.
But Thon is assured the success of Maya Bay can act as a mannequin for different vacationer locations in danger.
“It will change the image of Thai tourism, share the image that we are not just a country that are crazy about money,” he says.
“We would like to save our sea. And we can, if we can do at the heaviest mass tourism spot in the Thai sea, we can do it everywhere. The Maya Bay project is one of my biggest projects in my life. So as long as I live, I will keep my eye on Maya Bay.”
CNN’s Kocha Olarn contributed to this report.