The other side of “paradise”

Responsible Tourism - view of Maya Beach and some of the thousands of people that visit it daily
Paradise - The sun sparkling on the water on our way back from Koh Phi Phi
Sun on sea – one of my favourite things

The sun glittered and shimmered on the turquoise water as we skimmed our way back to Ao Nang beach. The Things for once sat still on our laps as Mr Wanderlust and I struggled to keep our eyes open. It had been an early start (relatively) and we had packed a lot into our full day on the boat. We’d just been to paradise but there was something I couldn’t make my peace with.

I couldn’t sleep

Despite the exhaustion, my mind was whirling. The boat captain had been sure he knew what we wanted and he shuttled us from beach to island to cave and back again.

Paradise - Mr Wanderlust and the Things on the boat as we set off for Koh Phi Phi
Ready for an adventure!

All in all we had visited 6 places in 6 hours. That counts the 1.5 hour unintended lunch stop and the hour long boat ride to and from the islands. It wasn’t quite the idea I’d had of a quiet day on some secluded beach somewhere that felt like paradise. Luckily the Things had loved it.

Koh Phi Phi

I wasn’t naive. We had done our research and we knew that Koh Phi Phi was among the most popular islands in the Andaman Sea. It was supposed to be paradise, right? I mean just look at the photos!

Paradise -  a flyer for Maya Bay
How it’s advertised…

So popular, in fact, that we had read that Maya Beach (of The Beach fame) is due to be closed for 4 months in order to give the area a chance of some regeneration. When I read the news I was dismayed that things had become so bad (200 boats and 4000 people a day) that such a drastic measure was needed. At the same time I was pleased that the authorities and local businesses had taken the step (I believe it took some time to come to an understanding).

It’s a growing solution

Just a week before I had read about another paradise, Boracay, in the Philippines being closed for 6 months.

As long as 10 years ago we were diving in Sipadan, Borneo, where there was a limited number of permits available each day and if you missed out you missed out. Dynamite fishing had also been banned.

Was it really that bad?

Paradise - Nui Beach - our favourite by far because it wasn't so busy
Looks like paradise right?

Our first stop was at a beach called Nui Beach. This tiny sliver of powder soft, white sand and crystal clear water was stunning. It was busy, yes, but not terribly bad. With a carefully selected frame, you could create a vision that you were almost alone there. To be fair, after we arrived some of the boats left and we really didn’t have to share the beach with that many people. I was excited for what was to come if that was our first taste of paradise.

Paradise - Nui Beach as well left with more boats arriving
Getting busy

As we left, the next shift of boats were arriving and I should have paid more attention that this was a sign of things to come.

Monkey Island and Maya Beach

Our next stop was Monkey Island at the recommendation of the captain.

Let’s just be clear here. I can’t and don’t blame him for any of this. He assumed we wanted what every other tourist wanted and he gave us just that. We hadn’t appreciated the machine that visiting Koh Phi Phi has become.

Paradise - Monkey Bay with hoardes of people
The Zoo

Monkey Island was HEAVING with people. They were everywhere and swarmed around the monkeys trying to get the perfect shot. I wanted to leave before we even got off the boat. I took photos of the monkeys to share with the Things and to remind them of our holiday. I will not be sharing them here or on social media.

Paradise - the view from Maya Beach with scores of boats and tourists
Not the advertised view

Later that afternoon we went to Maya Beach and… honestly? It was every bit as bad as I’d thought it would be.

It was hard to imagine we were in the same place that 18 years ago we watched on movie screens. I made a conscious decision to take photos of the zoo that it has become rather than trying to capture a tiny slice that makes it look like we were the only ones there.

Paradise - 22 speed boats lined up off Maya Beach
The sheer volume of people and boats made me feel sick and sad

As we left we counted 22 speedboats and 7 longtails moored up at the beach. There were at least half a dozen more anchored around the bay. And that’s not the half of it. The boats were coming and going all the time.

This was just the visual impact I could see, Wanderlusters. It takes no account of the damage these boats are doing to the coral or the marine life under that crystal clear water.

Accessible tourism

On the one hand, I love what globalisation and tourism has done and is doing for our generation and the next. I truly believe that by taking the Things on adventurous holidays instead of a 2 week all inclusive holiday on a beach somewhere that we are teaching them more than they can learn in a classroom alone. While we were there I remember thinking I’d have been willing to pay double or triple the price just so it meant that the pressure on the islands was reduced. But that’s not what I want at all Wanderlusters. Here’s the thing:

It’s not about the money

Paradise - View from Phi Phi Don Beach
You can get the views if you look for them but that’s missing the point

Charging more just returns this sort of travel to the few who can afford it. It would relegate normal (if you can call us that) people like us to much more unadventurous trips. It would mean that many people wouldn’t get to travel at all. We would get to experience new cultures or to meet people who live in societies so different to ours. We couldn’t try new foods or see new sights. I honestly don’t think that would be a good thing either.

There has to be a better way

I’m not naive enough to think it’s as easy as me writing a blog post to solve the problem. These closures are an encouraging sign that people are waking up to the problem but the key is to not let it get this bad in the first place. On a simple supply and demand basis, charging more would be effective but elitist.

Paradise - long tail boat off Viking Cave on Koh Phi Phi
There are all kinds of impact to consider

Restricting numbers could have a long term effect on local businesses. I’m not just talking about the tourism related things like boat tours. All businesses will be affected if there are closures especially somewhere like Boracay. At least on Koh Phi Phi it’s “only” one beach for now.

Local authorities have a tricky job on their hands balancing the needs of their local environments with those of local businesses. We need to get to a place where those needs go alongside each other, hand in hand. Not where they are compete against each other.

And trust me Wanderlusters

I’ll be doing alot more research into responsible and sustainable tourism for our future holidays.

Paradise - another view of Maya Beach and the incredible numbers of people there
More and more people
The Other Side Of Paradise - You can't deny that Koh Phi Phi is one of the most beautiful places on earth but recently Maya Bay has made the news for all the wrong reasons. Were they right to do what they did?
The Other Side Of Paradise - You can't deny that Koh Phi Phi is one of the most beautiful places on earth but recently Maya Bay has made the news for all the wrong reasons. Were they right to do what they did?
The Other Side Of Paradise - You can't deny that Koh Phi Phi is one of the most beautiful places on earth but recently Maya Bay has made the news for all the wrong reasons. Were they right to do what they did?
Emma Morrell
Emma Morrell

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  1. 12 April 2018 / 10:52

    I wrote a similar post (but with mountains, not beaches and blue sky) following our trip to Skye in NW Scotland last year. It was heaving compared to a previous visit, with lots of people on ‘see the island in a day’ trips. I don’t have a solution but I think that slowing travel down, walking, staying in one place for longer and exploring locally rather than trying to see all the main sights in a day would certainly help Skye.

    • 17 April 2018 / 09:49

      Its just so so sad and sickening to know we contribute to it every time we travel (and yet I can’t stop travelling). Definitely a case for spreading out, slowing down… and appreciating the small things. Actually exploring off the beaten track can be more rewarding than just getting that iconic photo that everyone has.

      • Nicole
        3 May 2018 / 06:57

        I also had mixed feelings about visiting Maya Bay, wanting to see the beauty of the islands but also not wanting to contribute to further distraction of wildlife & environment. When we were there it was high tide so the beach was that much smaller & teaming with hundreds of people. It was elbow to elbow, people taking selfies, applying makeup & cluless to the rest of there surroundings. I couldn’t even bring myself to take a picture as it was so disheartening. I understand tourism is an important part of the economy but the environmental price paid may not be refundable.

        • 8 May 2018 / 09:23

          It’s easy to say once you’ve been but I honestly wished we hadn’t gone. The whole experience made me feel quite sick. Like you, I couldn’t bring myself to take photos until I thought I could actually document the chaos that it was and try to use that to spread awareness.

  2. 25 November 2018 / 19:29

    This is very interesting to read. It’s hard to know what the answer is to the current situation, but the more people that talk about responsible tourism, the better.

    • 2 December 2018 / 09:53

      I completely agree! If we aren’t talking about it we will never find the solution!

  3. 4 January 2019 / 02:50

    If you, a human, could feel suffocated at Maya Bay, what about all the wildlife inhabiting in and around the island? Good move by the Thai government to close the island off to visitors – I hope in the future there will be a cap to the number of people going to Koh Phi Phi and strict restrictions like no single use plastic and bring your own trash back home.

    • 3 February 2019 / 13:06

      I COMPLETELY agree! It was so heartbreaking to be there. I was saddened to hear that the authorities had decided to close Maya Bay indefinitely because it means the damage was far worse than they had at first realised. On the other hand I’m hopeful that they were seeing progress and therefore saw the benefit in keeping it closed and I’m really glad that they took the brave decision to do it. Thanks so much for reading and for taking the time to comment – I really appreciate it especially on a post that is so close to my heart.