Thu, Mar 01, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Tourist bans might not be enough to save Southeast Asian coral paradises

From Philippine islands to the Thai bay made famous in ‘The Beach’ — officials want to turn tourists away so that devastated coral reefs have some time to recover

By Hannah Ellis-Petersen  /  The Observer

Illustration: Mountain people

Our Thai tour guide, Spicey, takes a drag on her cigarette and gestures sadly toward the beach.

“The problem with people is that they are too greedy. They see a beautiful place and they want it. They take, take, take from nature, and then they destroy it,” she said.

The golden sands of Maya Bay where Spicey stands are some of the most famous in the world.

This once-idyllic cove, on the tiny island of Koh Phi Phi Leh, was the paradise location of The Beach, Danny Boyle’s 2000 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio. It was then pushed by tourism officials in advertising campaigns to entice more wealthy visitors to Thailand.

However, mass tourism has since taken a vast toll on its fragile coral reefs: 80 percent of the coral around the bay has been destroyed, the result of millions of boats dropping anchor on it, tourists treading on and picking it, or poisoning it with rubbish and sunscreen.

It is a sad tale replicated across the once-unspoilt bays and beaches of Southeast Asia. The world’s greatest diversity of coral and marine life used to occur there, but the reefs are now the most threatened on the planet, with 80 percent of what remains at high risk.

Human pollution has combined with overfishing and the lucrative tourist trade to deliver appalling environmental destruction.

“What we are seeing now with coastal tourism in Boracay [in the Philippines], Maya Bay and Koh Phi Phi Leh is not new, but what is surprising is that this story is still very real today,” said Loke Ming Chou, a former professor of biological science at National University of Singapore, adding that “frenetic, makeshift and ad hoc development driven only by profit” is a curse to these pristine beaches.

“After so many lessons of overwhelmed beach locations, the rush to make money still ignores the environment, which is what attracts tourists in the first place. This is not sustainable and such places will collapse when tourists stay away to avoid swimming in their own muck,” he said.

However, recent announcements seem to indicate that governments are finally paying attention to a situation that is spiraling out of control, with Maya Bay and Boracay likely being shut down for up to six months to give the environment a chance to recover.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has called for Boracay’s temporary closure, comparing it to a “cesspool.”

“You go into the water, it’s smelly,” Duterte said. “Of what? Shit. Because everything that goes out in Boracay ... it’s destroying the environment of the Philippines and creating a disaster.”

In Thailand, where the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment has already banned smoking and littering at beachside locations, the mooted June-to-September shutdown of Maya Bay would be the most far-reaching attempt yet to get a grip on an industry that is both a money-spinner for the nation and an environmental menace.

In the high season, Maya Bay, just 200m long, receives up to 5,000 visitors a day and about 300 speedboat trips are made there every day. Larger boats sailing around the islands also stop by the cove.

Although the beauty of the place is still evident, the atmosphere resembles a busy industrial port more than a paradise beach, with the endless roar of engines and the smell of gasoline in the air.

By 9am, as the speedboats continually pull up, the beach is so tightly packed with people that it resembles a mass game of sardines. Every patch of sand is fought for, especially by the optimistic few who risk lying down for a spot of sunbathing.

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