One of the world’s most popular beaches, made famous by the 2000 film The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is to be closed indefinitely to allow it to recover from the damage caused by millions of tourists.
The golden sands and crystal blue water of Maya Bay, ringed by cliffs on Ko Phi Phi Leh island, has become one of Thailand’s most-visited tourist destinations since it shot to fame as the movie’s location.
The small beach has sustained extensive environmental damage in recent years, receiving up to 5,000 tourists and 200 boats a day.
Thai authorities announced they would be temporarily closing the bay from 1 June, but have now extended the planned four-month closure to at least a year, due to the extent of the destruction caused by the thousands of day-trippers.
Thanks to pollution from litter, boats and sun cream, it is estimated that more than 80% of the coral around Maya Bay has been destroyed.
Songtam Suksawang, the director of the national parks department, said: “We have evaluated each month and found out that the ecological system was seriously destroyed from tourism of up to 5,000 people daily.
“It’s very difficult to remedy and rehabilitate because its beach was completely destroyed as well the plants which cover it,” he said, adding that it was “impossible” for recovery to occur in the allotted time.
Despite evidence of the mounting damage to Maya Bay, for years, Thai authorities had been reluctant to shut it, because the location generates about 400 million baht (£9.5m) in revenue a year.
However, a royal gazette published on 1 October by Thailand’s department of national parks, wildlife and plant conservation announced the restrictions on tourism would not be lifted until the ecosystem “fully recovers to a normal situation”.
The news will come as a relief to local environmental campaigners, who had said a four-month closure was not nearly enough. Coral only grows about half a centimeter a year, so it will take years for the reef to be fully restored.
The Maya Bay park chief, Worapoj Lomlim, said the parks agency and others had already rehabilitated coral reefs in the bay by planting more than 1,000 corals and would keep expanding the project.
Countries across the region from the Philippines to Indonesia are waking up to the problems that can be caused by excessive tourism.
Indonesia declared a “garbage emergency” last year along with a stretch of the island of Bali after coastal pollution was highlighted in a viral video that showed a diver swimming through water full of rubbish.