This article is also available in Dutch at geografie.nl
Over the last months, a good amount of attention has been given to the negative consequences of mass tourism in the media. A good example of a place where mass tourism has severe negative impacts on the environment is Maya Bay on the island of Koh Phi Phi in Thailand. On the 1st of October 2018, the Thai government decided to close the beach that has been made famous by Leonardo DiCaprio for the 2000 film ‘The Beach’ indefinitely, as you may have noticed from the news. But is this rather radical move the right way to deal with the negative impacts of mass tourism?
A short introduction: the small archipelago of Koh Phi Phi consists of two small islands about 30 kilometres west of Krabi on the Thai mainland in the tropical Andaman Sea. The two biggest islands are Koh Phi Phi Don, the only inhabited island where all tourist facilities are, and Koh Phi Phi Leh, the uninhabited island where Maya Bay is located. Maya Bay is one of the reasons why Koh Phi Phi was until recently one of the most popular destinations in Thailand, if not all of Asia. Its tropical climate, beautiful setting, crystal clear waters, white-sand beaches and its reputation as a party place attracted almost 2 million of people annually to Maya Bay alone, many of them young backpackers. Last December, the author of this article was one of. Although I was strongly disappointed about Koh Phi Phi as a backpacker, this place intrigued me as a geographer: how can a place that small handle that many tourists?
In each travel guide on Thailand and on many Instagram pictures, Maya Bay looks like a pristine, deserted beach on an uninhabited island in paradise. What the pictures that everybody share on social media do not show, however, are the dozens of other people that want to see the beauty of the island and the beach with their own eyes. The noisy motorboats and the damage they do to the coral reefs, which used to be abundant around Koh Phi Phi. Therefore the Thai government announced to close off Koh Phi Phi Leh’s famous Maya Bay for an indefinite period of time from the 1 st of October this year. Scientists say that the reefs and the island’s vegetation need time to recover from the environmental damage those 5000 thousand tourists used to cause every day.
And, what is less well-known and obvious: the island of Koh Phi Phi Don, where all the tourists sleep, eat and party during their visit, is undergoing a dangerously high degree of over-development. Ironically, the tsunami in the Indian Ocean just after Christmas 2004 contributed to create momentum for unlimited and unbridled construction of hastily built, substandard tourist accommodation. Almost every building on the small strip of sand that connects the two rocky hills that make up Koh Phi Phi Don was razed to the ground during this disaster. Consequently, all the infrastructure on the island had to be reconstructed, in an era that Thailand became the fourth largest recipient of tourism money in the world. This is well visible from the Koh Phi Phi Viewpoint; every cultivable square inch of Koh Phi Phi Don is now occupied by hotels, hostels, bungalows, bars and restaurants to cater the steadily
growing inflow of tourists. Before the tsunami, there was a good amount of backpackers on Koh Phi Phi but the big crowds stayed away from the islands due to a lack of western amenities. There used to be no ATM, no internet and no hot water, for example.
You might think it is a good idea to close Koh Phi Phi Leh’s Maya Bay indefinitely and
entirely to recover from the damage done. There is a big downside, however. The over-development of tourism on the island caused a strong dependence on the tourists’ money. There is a significant risk that tourists will now opt for skipping Koh Phi Phi and start colonizing another paradise-like island instead. Developments on some other Thai islands show that it works like that: social influencers continue to hype the Thai islands as a perfect holiday destination (and generally for good reason), and that is why one starts to see the same symptoms of over-development on nearby islands like Koh Lanta, Koh Muk and Koh Lipe. And, maybe even more important, what about the local population? Unemployment, bankruptcy of businesses and an overall economic downturn are luring for Koh Phi Phi. In the worst case, the local population might opt for fishing in the protected coral reefs again. With all the consequences this entails: reef destruction, pollution and a loss of biodiversity.
No, there are other options in my opinion. While visiting Koh Phi Phi Leh was never entirely free, it surely wasn’t expensive to visit the Paradise on Earth. For the equivalent of a mere €15 you could participate in an all-inclusive boat tour to Maya Bay, including the national park fee, a drink, some snacks and snorkel rental. There is room for improvement there: the money from increased entrance fees could be used for redevelopment of both the islands and a more controlled movement of tourists, which might change the profile of Koh Phi Phi to a high-end and exclusive destination that is able to make a living out of tourism while having lower amounts of tourists and their impact. Isn’t it a wiser and more inclusive solution to regulate and raise entrance fees rather than to close the island entirely and leaving the local population with nothing?
This article was first published in Girugten (Year 49 of Girugten – issue 02 – november 2018).