Maya Bay reopening signals changes in Thai tourism


At the edge of the turquoise water, Asian and European tourists strike a pose. They had come to attend, in early January, the long-awaited reopening of Maya Bay, the jewel of the Andaman Sea, after three years of closure.

“We hoped that there would be no one here for the first day,” says Maïka, a Malagasy tourist. “But it’s a mythical beach, everyone wanted to come, of course.”

Off the island of Koh Phi Phi, with its crystal clear waters and limestone hills covered in vegetation, Maya Bay – the name comes from the Sanskrit word “Maya”, which means illusion, which in a Hindu tradition refers to the cosmic force at through which the universe manifests itself to human beings — is considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

It served as the setting for the film The beachreleased in 2000 with Leonardo di Caprio and Virginie Ledoyen.

Maya Bay received nearly 5,000 visitors and over 200 boats each day. Its marine ecology is a victim of its success and of mass tourism: the coral reef is severely damaged, the fauna and flora are drying out.

In 2018, the government closed the bay for ecological recovery. Restoration efforts continued for three years. Scientists from the Coral Reef Conservation Center have set up “coral nurseries” near the bay and set up dedicated underwater spaces to grow tiny plants. Local communities have mobilized to save their environment.

This is great news. After three months of closure, we had already seen tremendous progress on corals and marine life

“As soon as the plants were big enough, local divers volunteered to go and replant them at Maya, in places on the reef that had been completely destroyed by motorboats,” says Niklas Hartman, a diving instructor based in Maya. in Koh Phi Phi.

Some species of fish have been reintroduced, others have come back on their own, such as blacktip sharks, an indicator species of the health of marine ecosystems.

Scientists say they are surprised at how quickly nature has taken back its rights.

“This is great news,” says Anuar Abdullah, director of the NGO Ocean Quest Global. “After three months of closure, we had already seen tremendous progress on corals and marine life. This is proof that it is not too late in many other places around the world.”

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In view of these good results, the government reopened the bay on January 3, despite divergent opinions. The reopening came earlier than expected in 2023. Environmentalists fear the return of tourists could once again ruin everything, but the majority of locals believe “business needs to pick up”.

“Maya attracts visitors, we need them to survive,” said a boat driver at the port of Tongsai.

Through the example of Maya Bay, it is the whole question of the new Thai tourist model that arises – between the necessary return of tourists for the economy and the desire to preserve the environmental benefits of the pandemic.

In Maya, the authorities have chosen to impose restrictions: boats no longer have access to the bay, visitors must arrive from the back of the islet and access the beach after a short walk. Each tourist is only allowed to stay for one hour, with a maximum of 375 tourists per hour. Above all, swimming is now prohibited.

“We are trying to implement new tourism practices,” says Yongyuth Pradert of the National Parks Department. “We have installed guards to monitor the beach.”

He stresses that the emphasis placed on wilderness is necessarily to the detriment of certain practices, in particular those popular with European tourists, such as swimming. “Today there are sharks, so it would be too dangerous anyway.”

This “new normal” in tourism, as described in a government directive, is committed to promoting tourism practices that are more “modeled on local lifestyles”.

In addition to environmental concerns, the Thai government wants to rethink its tourism in the context of a world now prone to epidemics and quarantines.

Its Sandbox program on the islands of Phuket and Samui is unique. It allows travelers to spend seven nights on these beaches without undergoing mandatory quarantine. Tourists are allowed to move freely after an initial negative test. They can go to the beach or to a restaurant, while the local population has been the focus of priority vaccination efforts.

The Thai government is also keen to promote domestic tourism, subsidizing through various programs up to 50% of hotel room rates for Thais.

Some hotels even offer “themed” quarantines, centered on well-being, aesthetic treatments or the practice of meditation. Thailand, whose traditional massage has been classified as an intangible heritage by UNESCO, can capitalize on its image of well-being, one of the major areas of development in the sector.

It is also to encourage long-term visitors, for whom a week of quarantine is not an obstacle. The focus has recently been on digital nomads, a growing community with the rise of remote working.

The island of Kho Pha-ngan, in the south-east, has made a specialty of attracting this new clientele, with low-rent houses for rent, good internet connections and a diversified and quality catering offer.

Communities of young web workers (web designers, content moderators, video editors), attracted by the multitude of yoga centers and other practices that favor physical and mental well-being, and by the ease of payment in cryptocurrencies in certain establishments , have flocked to the island in recent months.

The Thai government is also keen to promote domestic tourism, subsidizing through various programs up to 50% of hotel room rates for Thais.

A whole new class of people from the provinces began to travel for the first time. Their presence, now the majority in places formerly confiscated by international tourism, profoundly changes the face of the place. It has also changed what is on offer to consumers, such as fewer bars, prompting some Thai TV columnists to speak of “decolonization”.

The government has just announced the reduction of the quarantine period to two days (the first and fifth day while the PCR tests are carried out) from February for travelers arriving from abroad.

This is an adapted version of an article that appeared in Eglises d’Asie, a publication of the Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP) based in Paris.

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