MWith 30 knots, the speedboat races across the soft Andaman Sea. Thailand’s largest island, Phuket, disappears into the horizon with picturesque hills in the foreground. The trip takes an hour, and the closer the boat is to the Phi Phi archipelago, the more the color of the ocean changes from dark blue to azure turquoise.
Traditional longboats sway in the clear water, palm trees sway gently in the tropical breeze, and some white clouds float in the sky. What looks like a picture from a doggy photo calendar has a name that made some vacationers smile. Pronounced ‘phi fi’ and sounds similar to ‘baby’.
The archipelago in Krabi Province has long been on the list of many long-distance travelers from all over the world. That’s why mass tourism affected her so hard – but the long travel break caused by Corona changed that. No plastic bottles or other waste distort the picture of the perfect postcard. Southeast Asia shows itself here from one of its most beautiful sides.
But what is this? When passengers go ashore at Loh Ba Kao Bay, two signs of time suddenly surface: a negative rapid corona test and a green surgical mask. Bart Callins, general manager of the “SAii Phi Phi Village” hotel, pulled them out of the sea and shook his head. “Corona has spawned a whole new kind of garbage.” To remind that the epidemic has reached the ends of the earth.
Fortunately, such discoveries about the islands are still rare at the moment. Tourism in Thailand is just beginning again, and entry rules have always been relatively difficult and complicated – even if they have been greatly relaxed since May 1. So far, the very important restart of the hospitality industry has not really succeeded.
Disastrous consequences of the noise surrounding the “beach”
Those who took the trouble to enter the country will be generously rewarded. And you still have quite a few beaches to yourself almost. Anyone looking to party will be disappointed: the main town in Tonsai Village, once famous for its nightlife, is still somewhat sleepy.
A Quick Look at the History of the Paradise Islands: The group was still considered uninhabited until 1950, when Muslim fishermen settled Koh Phi Phi. For a long time, the main source of income consisted of fishing and sometimes coconut palm plantations. Then tourism became the main source of income. To date, only a few thousand people live on the islands, mainly on the largest island of Phi Phi Don.
The limestone island was almost completely destroyed by the devastating tsunami of 2004. Powerful natural forces devastated the densely populated coast in particular. 850 bodies were later recovered, and more than 1,000 are still missing at sea.
At that time the archipelago was already world famous. When the Hollywood hippie drama The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, hit theaters in 2000, the Eden Garden vibe of Koh Phi Phi sparked a global stir. In the leaked film, director Danny Boyle tells of a life far from civilization, but the film did just the opposite – with disastrous consequences.
For years, legions of tourists have made pilgrimages to the uninhabited island of Phi Phi Leh to enjoy the beautiful Maya Bay. In the end it was about 6000 a day. It happened, as often happens in famous places: paradise turned into a cramped nightmare. Every day, dozens of boats were dumping their moorings in once-intact reefs, coral breaking, sharks disappearing, and litter piled up. Lately, selfies are no longer fun either.
Corona was a blessing for Maya Bay Beach
At the behest of prominent marine biologist Thon Thamrungnawaswat, the bay was abruptly closed in June 2018 – despite the consequent financial losses. The environmental activist said at the time that guests from abroad were “very important to our country, but the most important thing is our national resource.” “We must preserve it and pass it on to the next generation.” Or, as the German aphorism Klaus de Koch once said: “Expulsion from heaven was the only chance to save him from men.”
The lockdown has ended much longer than initially planned due to the pandemic. But for Maya Bay, the Corona outbreak has been nothing short of a blessing. The border and beach break were closed for another two years.
After being closed for three and a half years, the natural wonders have only been open again since January – including newly planted coral reefs, strict rules of conduct and limiting the number of visitors. Swimming is prohibited. The boats are now moored on the other side of the island. For most people, the visit takes just over 30 minutes. But photos at least like the times of Leonardo DiCaprio are now possible again.
“The black-headed sharks came back after a year. Nature’s recovery was a miracle we didn’t expect,” says Sirithon Thamrungnawasawa, who is responsible for sustainability concepts at the local Singha hotel group.
However, there were pioneering projects: the government had already closed two more islands – Yonge Island and Tachai – in 2016. The waters there, in which hardly any fish have been swimming for a long time, quickly filled them up again thanks to a radical measure.
Hotels help protect islands
Speaking of lots of fish: divers, but also divers, make their money from the small islands of Bida Nok and Bida Nai at the southeastern tip of the Phi Phi archipelago. When the boat is moored in front of the strange rock formations, there is no stopping. Quickly put on your fins and mask and then travel to the Indian Ocean with its exotic underwater world.
In the bay, freshwater angelfish, surgeonfish, parrotfish and many starfish roam around various hard coral reefs. Harmless sharks sail along the cliffs.
In order to preserve paradise for future generations, more and more hotel complexes in the 390 square kilometers of Hat Nopparat Thara-Mu Ko Phi Phi National Marine Park are also focusing on sustainable tourism. “Consumer behavior has fundamentally changed in recent years,” says hotel general manager Bart Callins. Vacationers are paying more and more attention to environmental friendliness. Hotels and resorts in particular should set a good example.
“Most tourists today no longer want plastic lollipops, pre-divided food like jam or honey, or plastic bottles with shower gel or shampoo in it,” says Callins, who looks after two hotel complexes in Phi Phi Don and Phuket. “Resorts that don’t do well will eventually get the bill from the tourists.”
Solar energy, sustainable water and waste management, and perhaps also electric speed boats of the future for transportation – these are some of the approaches at Phi Phi Archipelago. And most importantly, awareness and education.
Koh Phi Phi relies on ecotourism
To promote this, the village of SAii Phi Phi has opened the Marine Discovery Center on its premises. It is the only one of its kind in the area. The fragile ocean habitat is clearly explained here, along with its diverse inhabitants, from sharks to corals. But overfishing or the dangers of ocean warming were also discussed. “Not only tourists, but also the classes come here and learn that their actions have a direct impact on the islands ecosystem,” says Sirithon Thamrungnawasawa.
Bamboo sharks and clown fish are reared in the center. Visitors can watch the children up close in their swimming pools. The animals are released into the ocean several times a year to support the surrounding National Marine Park ecosystem. Because not only the death of coral reefs, but also overfishing causes problems for many species.
In the meantime, the resorts work closely with the residents of Koh Phi Phi. Bart Callins talks about a ‘symbiotic relationship’. This ranges from water supply to tourist transportation. “Hotels often hire locals with their longboats for diving and snorkeling excursions rather than buying the boats themselves.”
Many Thais have completely lost their livelihood due to Corona and the survival of the important tourism sector. They hope that visitors will soon arrive in large numbers. So the balance between mass tourism and quality is still a tough tightrope walk in the Phi Phi archipelago. The pandemic has given nature a chance to recover. But what will happen when visitors from all over the world flock to paradise again?
“We need the tourists, there’s no doubt about it,” says Bart Callins. “But we need enlightened tourism that takes place in harmony with nature.” This is not a money issue at all. The word “quality” does not mean luxury tourism. “It’s about vacationing in an eco-friendly way – and not harming the habitats and biodiversity around the beautiful islands.”
Tips and information for Thailand:
Heading there: It is recommended to arrive via Phuket. There are direct flights with Thai Airways from Frankfurt / Main. From Phuket, take a boat to the Phi Phi Archipelago.
Entry: Travelers who have been vaccinated twice no longer need a corona test since May 1. All that is required is to register online for a so-called “Thai passport” and proof of health insurance for 10,000 US dollars (about 9,500 euros). Different rules apply to the unvaccinated. It is recommended to find out the necessary actions from the authorities. Information is available from the Thai Embassy in Berlin and on the website of the German Foreign Office.
Best time to travel: From November to April it is a little cooler and it rains a lot.