Sharks infest the popular tourist beach as beachgoers keep in the distance


March 29, 2023 | 2:26 p.m

Sharks have returned in full numbers to a popular destination in Thailand, creating a difficult situation for a region looking to revive its tourist attraction.

Video of Maya Bay, located on the island of Ko Phi Phi Leh off southwest Thailand in the Andaman Sea, shows oodles of beachgoers on beaches and reluctance to wade into the water’s depths as sharks prowl the water just feet away.

“We’re not talking about closing down everywhere or reducing tourism numbers, but I think we’re talking about managing it wisely,” said Pitch Manupawitr, a marine advisor to the National Parks Department of Thailand.

The sharks are back and thriving over the past four years after tourism was banned, and the COVID-19 pandemic restricted all visits to the area.

The island’s beaches came to prominence after the Leonardo DiCaprio movie “The Beach,” released in 2000. At its peak, the island saw 5,000 tourists and 200 boats a day, according to The Guardian.

Local authorities grew increasingly concerned about the widespread environmental damage caused by the rise in tourism and announced a “temporary closure” from 1 June 2018. The pause extended from four months to four years, in part due to travel bans implemented to combat the coronavirus.

A newborn reef shark is born in the waters in Maya Bay on Ko Phi Phi Leh Island in Thailand on February 25, 2023.
Photo: Jorge Silva/Reuters
A tourist approaches a shark on the beach in Maya Bay.
Photo: Jorge Silva/Reuters

Authorities allowed limited tourism to resume in 2022, but monitoring through the use of drones and underwater cameras has allowed researchers to track shark populations and note a decline once tourism is back up and running again.

Tourism accounted for 12% of Thailand’s GDP before the pandemic, and revenues from Phi Phi Island National Park fell by nearly half after the tourism ban. The government is still keen to restore this large income, but conservationists have lobbied for new restrictions, which the government has implemented.

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“We hope that with the restrictions in place, we can mitigate (the sharks’) disturbance,” marine researcher Metavi Chuangcharwinde said of the situation. “We are conducting this research with the hope that we can find the best way to manage and the best way for tourism and the environment to co-exist.”

A shark swims a few feet away from the beachgoers.
Photo: Jorge Silva/Reuters
The sharks are back on the island after the tourism ban was extended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo: Jorge Silva/Reuters

Tourist boats must dock on the opposite side of the island from the shore; Visitors must walk to the beach; The number of visitors allowed each hour is 375, and they are only allowed to wade in the water knee-deep.

“If you can create a new image of Maya Bay as a nature reserve… I think that will actually create a new tourism scheme as well and we’ll benefit from it in general,” said Beach National Parks Department consultant Peach.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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