When Danny Boyle chose Maya Bay on the island of Phi Phi Leh, Thailand, as the titular setting of his 2000 film The Beach, it was a little-known destination with a spectacular – and, at the time, largely untouched – natural landscape.
Today, it is closed to tourists because of the excessive attention it received following the release of the film and the damage that attention has wreaked on the environment. National park officials this week announced that this temporary closure, due to end next month, will continue until 2021.
Before the ban was introduced on June 1, 2018, as many as 5,000 visitors and 200 boats touched down on the island every single day, making it one of the country's most-visited destinations. Cue: crowds of tourists, reams of plastic garbage, and a severely damaged ecosystem. According to the BBC, the vast majority of the beach's coral died as a direct result.
There is some irony to the fact that the beach became a travel hotspot after a film adaption of a book documenting the tale of a young backpacker (played by Leonardo di Caprio) seeking a legendary beach noted for its lack of tourists. By the time the closure was introduced, it was generating some 400 million baht ($12.6 million) in income per annum.
It was because of this popularity among the travel community that Thai officials were so reluctant to close the beach in the first place, despite pleas from environmentalists and years of evidence showcasing the environmental degradation caused as a result. While there has been opposition from those working in the tourism industry, authorities decided to extend the ban from its initial expiry date of September 30, 2018, to June 2019. Now, they have lengthened the ban by another two years to give the area more time to recover.
In the months since the closure, environmentalists have spotted the return of blacktip reef sharks in Maya Bay, with 50 to 60 of the creatures migrating to the shoreline each day.
"They are a symbol of nature, everyone gets it," Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a marine scientist from Kasetsart University with 40+ years of experience of the Maya Bay, told BBC News.
"Sixty sharks are worth protecting."
Coral is making a comeback, too. Over the last year, more than 1,000 corals have been planted to replenish the bay's population, though it will take time for the benefits to be seen. Coral grows just half a centimeter or so a year.
When the park does re-open, authorities have been clear that it will include quotas on the number of visitors and boats allowed to stay in the bay, the BBC reports.
But Maya Bay and Phi Phi Leh are not the only victims of over-tourism. While the rise of budget airlines, large-scale resorts, and short-term rentals grant us access to parts of the world our grandparents could only dream of, it comes with a price to the environment. It's affecting Boracay in the Philippines, Machu Picchu in Peru, Venice in Italy, and more recently, the Rainbow Mountain of Peru. Discovered just five years ago, its trail is already severely eroded.
As for Thailand, Maya Bay is indicative of a larger problem. According to Thon, Thailand's coral reef damage has gone from 30 percent to 77 percent in just 10 years.
The film that started it all – The Beach. MovieSpolierSite/YouTube