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Ailing Thai beach made famous by DiCaprio film gets tourist timeout

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Ailing Thai beach made famous by DiCaprio film gets tourist timeout

Image: Phi Phi leh island
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Sakchai Lalit
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MAYA BAY, Thailand — Once a pristine Thai paradise, the secluded bay made famous by the Leonardo DiCaprio movie "The Beach" has been exhausted by mass tourism.

It's now getting a break from the daily influx of dozens of boats and thousands of visitors unsuccessfully scrambling for an unspoiled view of glistening white sands and emerald waters.

Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh Island in the Andaman Sea will close to tourists for four months from Friday to give its coral reefs and sea life a chance to recover from an onslaught that began nearly two decades ago. Thai authorities, who have promoted unfettered tourism but now claim to be striving to balance profit and conservation, say the closure will happen every year.

It's part of a rethink happening globally about unrestricted tourism that brings big dollars but damages historic sites, harms the environment and often alienates locals.

Last month, the Philippines began a six-month closure of popular Boracay Island, whose waters President Rodrigo Duterte described as a "cesspool." Venice, the famed Italian lagoon city that lives off tourism, installed gates at two access bridges during a four-day holiday in April so it could turn back visitors if numbers became overwhelming.

Many of Thailand's marine national parks are closed from mid-May to mid-October during the monsoon season but because of Maya Bay's popularity, it hasn't had a break since a Hollywood crew set foot on its sands in 1999 to film the dark backpacker tale based on a novel by Alex Garland. Its corals have been decimated by the suffocating clouds of sand and sediment churned up by speedboats.

Tourists pose for photos on an outcropping in Maya Bay, Thailand.
Tourists pose for photos on an outcropping in Maya Bay, Thailand.Sakchai Lalit

"I tried to push this campaign for many many years, but you know in Thailand we are a tourism industry country and we need a lot of money, so before not so many people listened," said Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a marine biologist and member of a government committee on development and the environment. "It should have been done 10 years ago but at least it has been done," he said.

Thailand had about 35 million international visitors last year, a five-fold increase in little more than two decades.

Shi Pengfei, among the last tourists to visit Maya Bay before its closure, said he had no idea that there would be so many people on the beach.

"I feel that there are so many people here," said Shi, from Henan, China. "The government's plan to close off the beach for a few months is only natural because the ocean needs a break, a chance to recover, so that the next generation can have a better and even more beautiful destination."

The government has set a limit of 2,000 tourists a day when the bay reopens — about half the current number. Boats will no longer be allowed to anchor but must dock on the opposite side of the island.

"Now that the government has this plan, we can't change it. But we could use this opportunity to tell the world that we do not just have Maya Bay. There are 10 other beautiful beaches and islands around here that tourists can enjoy," said the head of Phi Phi Tourist Business Association, Watrapol Jantharo.