KOH PHI PHI LEY, Thailand (AFP) – 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.
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte ordered this month the Boracay beach resort closed to tourists for up to six months from April 26, describing the destination as a “cesspool” tainted by sewage dumped directly into the sea.
Indonesian officials, meanwhile, declared a “garbage emergency” last year swamping a six km stretch of coast along the island of Bali.
The island’s grim coastal pollution was highlighted in March by British diver Rich Horner’s viral video of swimming through a sea of trash swirling off shore.
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.
But governments are wary of curtailing an industry that creates jobs and buoys economies.
Spending on travel and tourism contributed nearly US$136 billion (S$178 billion) to the region’s GDP in 2017, a figure forecast to rise to US$144 billion this year, according to the World Travel Tourism Council.
But some countries are not taking such dramatic steps.
In Indonesia, the tourism ministry said there were no plans to close Bali or any other holiday destination in the archipelago, although it acknowledged that pockets of the tropical paradise were under strain from heavy tourism.
“Shut down Bali? I don’t think we will need to do that yet,” said ministry spokesman Guntur Sakti. “Bali is the centre of Indonesian tourism.” In fact, Indonesia has identified 10 other destinations where it is trying to boost visitors and replicate Bali’s success, including neighbouring island Lombok and Lake Toba in Sumatra.
Experts are also sceptical that short shut-downs will have lasting effects.
“Bottom line is that temporarily closing the beach is probably not the optimal solution to these problems. It only take a day for a bunch of incompetent snorkellers to trash a small reef,” said Andrew Baird from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Australia.
Travellers to Maya Bay might like the idea.
As for his thoughts on the looming closure?