Famous Thai Maya Bay beach witness rise in tourists and sharks

 Thursday, March 30, 2023 


Thailand’s Maya Bay attracts about 4,000 tourists on any given day to its white-sand beach flanked by towering cliffs, while up to 40 blacktip reef sharks cruise in the cyan shallows, Reuters news agency reported.

Shark numbers have increased with the surge of tour boats and visitors eager to witness the desolate paradise made famous as the setting for Leonardo Di Caprio’s 2000 movie “The Beach.”

The sharks reappeared after a tourism restriction and the COVID-19 pandemic prohibited all visitation to the bay between 2018 and 2022.

Officials permitted limited tourism to restart in 2022, but conservationists say shark populations are once again dwindling, leaving Maya Bay scrambling to strike a compromise between protecting a pristine ecology and sustaining tourism-dependent livelihoods.

“We don’t talk about closing down everywhere or reducing the tourism numbers, but I think we are talking about managing it wisely,” Reuters quoted Petch Manopawitr, a marine advisor to Thailand’s National Parks Department, as saying.

Maya Bay is located on Phi Phi Leh Island, a speck of limestone rock covered in emerald-green foliage off Thailand’s west coast in the Andaman Sea.

According to marine researcher Metavee Chuangcharoendee, the island is now operating as a nursery for baby sharks as a result of the tourism halt. She and her colleagues at the Maya Shark Watch Project count sharks and analyse their behaviour, eating locations, and breeding trends using underwater cameras and drones.

They detected a decline in the population of sharks between November 2021, when they began a pilot study, and the end of 2022, when visitors gradually returned.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, blacktip sharks, called after the striking black colour on their dorsal fins and tails, are becoming more scarce in the Andaman Sea and other tropical locations owing to overfishing.

The sharks near Phi Phi Leh Island are affected by a variety of variables, including seasonal migration patterns and human activity such as fishing, according to Metavee.

But, with shark numbers already on the decline, officials and environmentalists are determined to restrict visitors from swimming in the area and drive away the young sharks, which hide in the shallows and coral reefs from cannibalistic adults.

“We are hoping that with the restrictions in place, we can mitigate the disturbance to (the sharks). We are doing this research in hopes that we can find the best way to manage and the best way for tourism and the environment to coexist,” Metavee said.

Tourism is a major economic driver in Thailand, accounting for 12% of GDP prior to the epidemic. This year, the Southeast Asian country hopes to raise 1.5 trillion baht from up to 30 million tourists.

Once officials blocked the beach, yearly income for Phi Phi Island National Park nearly dropped from 638.3 million baht ($18.7 million) in 2018 to 373.6 million baht in 2019. The epidemic exacerbated the industry’s problems.

Following pressure from travel operators, officials reopened Maya Bay after a four-year hiatus in January 2022, and tourist and income counts are rapidly climbing. Yet, officials have maintained access limitations.

Visitors must walk to the beach from tour boats that dock on the other side of the island from the beach. The number of visitors permitted every hour is regulated at 375, and they are only permitted to go knee-deep into the water.

“If you can create a new image of Maya Bay as a nature reserve … I think that is actually going to create a new tourism scheme as well and we (are) going to benefit from it overall,” said National Parks Department advisor Petch.

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