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Maya Bay’s battle between mass tourism and the blacktip reef sharks

Maya Bay, located on Koh Phi Phi Leh in between Krabi and Phuket in Phang Nga Bay, was made famous as the location for the movie “The Beach” in 2000. The bay was a stunning backdrop for parts of the film and turned the natural lagoon into a tourism magnet, now one of the most poplar attractions in Thailand. Its lagoon is also home to blacktop reef sharks.

Tourists flocked to the area, but the influx of visitors had a negative impact on the local ecosystem, including the blacktip reef shark population. A tourism ban and the Covid pandemic resulted in a pause in mass tourism between 2018 and 2022, allowing the shark population to recover along with the rest of the Bay’s fragile ecology.

A new pier was added on the other side of the island, keeping boats out of the actual Maya Bay. Limited tourism resumed in 2022, but shark numbers have once again started to decline as the hordes of tourists return to the famous beach.

The challenge now is to strike a balance between preserving the ecosystem and sustaining tourism-dependent livelihoods.

Despite the best attempts to limit impact on the environment, Maya Bay’s role as a tourist magnet is proving to be a fatal attraction.

The limits placed on visitations by the National Park officials appear to have done nothing to stop the stampede of tour boats making a B-Line for the famous bay every day. At its peak, before officials decided to close down the Bay to ‘recuperate’, some 6,000 people would visit the Bay and trample the beach daily.

The daily figures are now thought to be reaching or even exceeding this figure at peak times, although ‘officially’ the numbers are not exceeding 4,000.

And the new arrival at the Bay, behind the beach with a 10 minute walk that opens out onto the famous lagoon, is causing massive traffic jams for tour boats arriving at the same, small, floating pontoon. Tour operators are finding the arrivals and departures more perilous with passengers having to hop on and off from a moving boat onto a floating pontoon.

Now, marine researchers at the Maya Shark Watch Project have been studying the sharks’ behaviour, feeding areas, and breeding patterns with the aid of underwater cameras and drones.

According to the Bangkok Post, they found that the sharks use the area around the island as a nursery for young sharks. However, human activities, such as fishing and tourism, have impacted their numbers. The blacktip reef sharks roam tropical regions, but their numbers are declining due to overfishing.

These sharks are relatively small, typically growing to around 1.5 metres in length, and are named for the distinctive black tips on their dorsal fins. They are commonly found in shallow waters around coral reefs, where they feed on small fish and crustaceans.

Black tip reef sharks are generally not aggressive towards humans and are considered relatively safe to swim with. Due to the popularity of Maya Bay as a tourist destination, the black tip reef shark population in the area has declined in recent years, highlighting the need for sustainable tourism practices to protect the delicate marine ecosystem.

Authorities and conservationists hope to keep tourists from swimming in the bay, which can drive away the baby sharks. To achieve this, visitors are only allowed to wade knee-deep into the water. The number of visitors allowed every hour is also capped at 375 (but often exceeded at peak times), and tour boats must dock on the other side of the island from the beach and only cruise past the mouth of Bay for photos.

Thailand’s tourism industry accounts for 12% of the country’s GDP, with the government aiming to generate 1.5 trillion baht from up to 30 million tourists this year. Phi Phi Island National Park, where Maya Bay is located, saw annual revenue drop by almost half after the beach was closed in 2018.

Maya Bay was reopened in January 2022 after pressure from tour operators. The hope is to create a new image of Maya Bay as a nature reserve to benefit both tourism and the environment.

Meanwhile, the tour boats keep arriving and National Park officials have a merry dance trying to balance the economics, demands of tourists, tour operators, the environment and the survival of the blacktip reef sharks.

SOURCE: Bangkok Post

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