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Bay in The Beach shut indefinitely

Maya Bay was initially closed for four months in June but authorities have since realised that the short-term fix was not enough

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Maya Bay, ringed by cliffs on Ko Phi Phi Ley island, was made famous when it featured in the 2000 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Bangkok

THE glittering Thai bay immortalised in the movie The Beach will be closed indefinitely to allow it to recover from the impact of hordes of tourists, an official said Wednesday, as a temporary ban on visitors expired.

Maya Bay, ringed by cliffs on Ko Phi Phi Ley island, was made famous when it featured in the 2000 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

It was initially shut for four months in June due to beach erosion and pollution as the white-sand paradise sagged under pressure from thousands of day-trippers arriving by boat. But a survey of the problem during the temporary ban made it clear that the short-term fix was not going to work, and that the damage was worse than originally thought.

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"We have evaluated each month and found out that the ecological system was seriously destroyed from tourism of up to 5,000 people daily," Songtam Suksawang, director of the National Parks office, told AFP.

"It's very difficult to remedy and rehabilitate because its beach was destroyed as well the plants which cover it," he said, adding it was "impossible" for recovery to occur in the allotted time. He showed photos to AFP showing the degradation of Maya Bay's shores, where trees and smaller vegetation have been gradually uprooted as its white sands receded.

Thailand's Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation announced the indefinite closure in a royal gazette published on Oct 1. It said that the restrictions on tourism would not be lifted until the ecosystem "fully recovers to a normal situation".

Besides beach erosion, heavy traffic around the azure waters can also damage sensitive coral reefs, already vulnerable to rising sea temperatures and climate change.

Arnaud Simons of Ocean Quest Global, an environmental organisation assisting the government with coral recovery around Maya Bay, said that the bay's rehabilitation could "last for four years at least" and the indefinite closure is "very good news". "Over the last few months, the monsoon season and rough sea conditions have indeed hindered the efforts of coral rehabilitation, but we have no doubt that the longer term objectives . . . will be met."

Thailand attracted up to 35 million visitors last year, many of whom flocked to Krabi town where boat trips carried visitors to nearby island destinations - of which Maya Bay is a key attraction.

Nanthapat Horbut, who runs a tour company in Krabi, was "disappointed" by the closure as his company had promised Maya Bay to customers booked for Thailand's tourist high season which begins in November. "All tourists . . . want to see Maya Bay, both Chinese and western tourists alike," he said.

Paul Pruangkarn of Pacific Asia Travel Association - a non-profit organisation working with Thai operators to promote responsible tourism - said that the decision was a double-edged sword for local communities. "You need to also consider the livelihoods," he said. "They still have to feed themselves and support their families. The government has to consider how then can they assist them."

Countries across the region are waking up to the problems of plastic waste and environmental degradation caused by beach tourism overload. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte announced in April a six-month closure of the popular Boracay beach resort, calling the destination a "cesspool".

A Philippine environment official announced on Wednesday that the government would impose a daily cap of 19,000 tourists on the island resort when it reopens to tourists on Oct 26 after a six-month rehabilitation effort.

Indonesia declared a "garbage emergency" last year along a stretch of the resort island of Bali, after coastal pollution was highlighted in a viral video that showed a diver swimming through waters full of trash. AFP