With its golden sand and azure water the beach was many a backpacking vagabond’s dream of paradise on earth. That was its undoing.
In the 1999 film The Beach, Leonardo DiCaprio joined a group of reclusive backpackers who set up a small community on a secluded, idyllic beach in southern Thailand. With its golden sand, azure water and scenic cliffs the beach was many a backpacking vagabond’s dream of paradise on earth.
Yet the actual beach that served as the setting for the film is anything but secluded and idyllic … thanks in no small part to its celluloid fame. The small, picturesque beach in Maya Bay, near the resort island of Phuket in the Andaman Sea, receives as many as 5,000 tourists arriving by 200 boats every single day.
The local environment has suffered grave damage as a result. An estimated 80% of the coral around Maya Bay has been destroyed, largely by frolicking tourists and passing boats but also from the effects of litter and toxic effluents from sun cream. Endless mass tourism has also wreaked destruction on other forms of local marine life, driving away numerous fish species.
In response, local authorities have decided to close the small beach off to tourism indefinitely. By closing the beach to visitors for at least a year, Thai authorities hope to allow the local environment to recuperate. They tried doing so for a few months last summer, but the time wasn’t sufficient.
“We have evaluated [the situation] each month and found out that the ecological system was seriously destroyed from tourism of up to 5,000 people daily,” said Songtam Suksawang, the director of the National Parks Department. “It’s very difficult to remedy and rehabilitate because its beach was completely destroyed as well the plants which cover it.”
Yet not everyone is happy with the decision, local tour operators included. The beach alone generates more than €10 million a year for the local tourism industry. Yet closing off popular tourist sites with fragile ecosystems may well be the only way to save them.
Authorities in the Philippines reached similar conclusions when they decided to close down Boracay, a small picturesque island hugely popular with foreign tourists, for six months last summer. Last year alone 2 million tourists visited the island, famed for its white-sand beaches. The tourists brought with them plenty of cash, which helped the local economy.
Yet the environmental costs were also considerable. Once where a smattering of bamboo huts and modest, wood-framed inns stood, now modern hotels line the island’s famed White Beach. A local mall even has McDonald’s, KFC and Starbucks outlets on an island a mere 10 square kilometers in size.