efe-epaBy Karl Sexton. Bangkok

The sight of empty white sandy shores of southern Thailand’s world-famous Maya Bay is a welcome one for conservationists, but many businesses that rely on the thousands of daily visitors to the once pristine beach have suffered since it was closed a year ago.

The coral-rich waters of the cove, whose picturesque beach on the uninhabited island of Phi Phi Leh was made famous as the setting for the 2000 film The Beach, became victims of their own popularity; a massive surge in visitors since the film’s release had a hugely damaging impact on the area’s ecological health, leaving authorities with little choice but to make it completely off-limits to tourists. Earlier this month, the moratorium on visitors was extended until at least 2021.

In December, less than six months after the closure, blacktip reef sharks were spotted swimming in the bay’s turquoise waters, while the restoration of corals and of the beachfront forest have already yielded positive results, Woraphot Lomlim, the head of Hat Noppharat Thara–Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park, where Maya Bay is located, told EFE.

“Wildlife is more abundant and the improvement clearly shows. We definitely see good results," he said.

In less than a year since the closure was first announced, 10 types of corals have been planted, with “around 29,000 of them growing right now," said Thon Thamrongnawasawat, marine biologist and assistant professor at Kasetsart University in Bangkok.

Thon told EFE that conservationists are also developing facilities on the island that will stop vessels from pulling up close to the beach to avoid boat anchors damaging the coral and to help the bay’s various kinds of flora and fauna continue their recovery.

“We are building the dock on the other side of the island, so all the boats will have to enter the island from that way," he said, adding that special trails would be built to reduce the impact tourists have on the island’s forest.

Although major improvements have been recorded since the closure, authorities announced this month that the beach would remain off-limits until at least 2021, and the ban on visitors could be extended beyond that to allow the bay to continue its recovery.

The decision to ban access to the beach has meant a significant decrease in tourist revenue.

Thailand is one of the world’s most popular holiday destinations. Tourism is a staple of its economy, bringing in 3 trillion baht (over $93.7 billion) in 2018, and Koh Phi Phi Leh is one of the country’s most recognizable attractions, due largely to DiCaprio’s film.

The island, part of the Phi Phi archipelago, is reached from nearby Koh Phi Phi Don (the largest, and widely known as Koh Phi Phi) where many of the tourism operators are based.

While environmentalists have praised the decisive, albeit overdue, action to protect the bay’s marine life, locals who rely on tourist visitors for their livelihoods have seen their customer base shrink.

“It has affected our business dramatically, and we are down 70 percent on last year," a representative for Maya Bay Tours who wished to remain anonymous told EFE.

“We have had to cut staff numbers and salaries. We are not profitable and are in survival mode."

The spokesperson said that the government had not provided any financial assistance to offset the tour company’s losses.

Thon said two years was the shortest period conservationists could consider keeping visitors away, as the construction of new infrastructure and the recovery of the flora and fauna will take time.

He also dismissed the notion that local businesses suffering from the ban on visitors were owed any subsidies.

“A national park means it is the nation’s treasure and it is not the property of anyone. So there is no such thing as giving compensation to the local tourism businesses," he said.

Wat Phutthipanjapong, owner of Phi Phi Travel and Tours, agreed that the closure was necessary to secure the long-term future of the bay and the businesses that rely on it.

“Maya Bay has become an ecological disaster, and for sure the closure and preservation was necessary. It needs to recover," Wat said.

Even after the moratorium on visitors is lifted, the daily number will need to be controlled.

“Tourism should be sustainable. It should be something that lasts and we always try to communicate that to people," Woraphot said.

Despite the loss of revenue, Maya Bay Tours agreed with the park chief that limiting the number of visitors is fundamental to the area’s long-term survival. A more ecologically friendly approach “would have lessened the disastrous effects to the general tourist business on Phi Phi island," the tour operator said.

Plans are in place to introduce an e-ticketing system in which a limited number of people will have to book in advance, Thon said. “There should be no more than 300 tourists per visit or session. And there could be seven visits or sessions per day, maybe less," he said.

But locals fear that this limited ticketing system will give preferential treatment to larger operators from the neighboring province of Phuket, which mostly run speed boats for day trips without contributing to the economy in Krabi.

“Local longtail boat captains and small travel agencies from Koh Phi Phi will not have access to Maya Bay anymore," Wat said.

Until the beach is reopened, Woraphot said that the park authorities would help local businesses offset their lost revenue “by promoting other less popular places in the area instead," something which tour operators in Krabi support.

“It would help the local businesses if we can get the word out that Phi Phi is still open and there are plenty of other great places to see," Maya Bay Tours said.