Sharks have returned in full numbers to a popular tourist destination in Thailand, creating a difficult situation for an area looking to revitalize its tourist appeal.
Video from Maya Bay, located on the island of Ko Phi Phi Leh in southwest Thailand in the Andaman Sea, shows large numbers of beachgoers on the beaches reluctant to go deeper into the water as sharks buzz around in the water just meters away removed.
“We’re not talking about closing everywhere or cutting tourism numbers, but I think we’re talking about doing it wisely,” said Petch Manopawitr, a marine adviser with Thailand’s national parks authority.
The shark population has returned and thrived over the past four years after a tourism ban and the COVID-19 pandemic restricted all visits to the region.
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The island’s beaches became famous after Leonardo DiCaprio’s film The Beach, released in 2000. At its peak, the island saw 5,000 tourists and 200 boats a day, according to The Guardian.
Concerned about the extensive environmental damage caused by the surge in tourism, local authorities announced a “temporary closure” from June 1, 2018. The hiatus was extended from four months to four years, partly due to travel bans to combat the coronavirus.
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Authorities allowed limited tourism to resume in 2022, but observation through the use of drones and underwater cameras allowed researchers to track shark numbers and noticed a decline once tourism resumed.
Tourism accounted for 12% of Thailand’s GDP before the pandemic, and Phi Phi Island National Park’s revenue fell by almost half after the tourism ban. The government remains keen to reclaim this sizable income, but conservationists have pushed for new restrictions, which the government has implemented.
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“We hope that with the restrictions in place, we can mitigate the disruption to (the sharks),” marine scientist Metavee Chuangcharoendee said of the situation. “We are conducting this research in the hope that we can find the best way for tourism and the environment to best manage and coexist with each other.”
Tour boats must dock on the other side of the island from the beach; Visitors must walk to the beach; The number of visitors per hour is limited to 375, and they are only allowed to wade in the water knee-deep.
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“If you can create a new image of Maya Bay as a nature reserve… I think that will actually create a new tourism program as well and we (will) benefit from it overall,” said National Parks Department consultant Petsch.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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