MAYA BAY, Thailand (Reuters) – On any given day in Thailand’s Maya Bay, as much as 40 blacktip reef sharks cruise within the cyan shallows whereas about 4,000 vacationers go to its white-sand seashore flanked by towering cliffs.
Shark numbers have improved since virtually each final one was pushed from the bay by the inflow of tour boats and vacationers eager to see the uninhabited idyll that was made well-known because the set of Leonardo Di Caprio’s 2000 thriller “The Seashore”.
The sharks returned after a tourism ban and the COVID-19 pandemic between 2018 and 2022 halted all guests to the bay.
Authorities allowed restricted tourism to renew in 2022, and now conservationists say shark numbers are scaling down once more, leaving Maya Bay struggling to strike a steadiness between preserving a pristine ecosystem and sustaining livelihoods depending on tourism.
“We don’t speak about closing down in all places or lowering the tourism numbers, however I believe we’re speaking about managing it correctly,” stated Petch Manopavitr, a marine advisor to Thailand’s Nationwide Parks Division.
Maya Bay lies in Phi Phi Leh Island, a spec of limestone rock lined in emerald-green vegetation within the Andaman Sea off Thailand’s west coast.
Marine researcher Metavee Chuangcharoendee stated that because of the pause in tourism the island was as soon as once more functioning as a nursery for younger sharks.
She and different researchers on the Maya Shark Watch Mission use underwater cameras and drones to rely sharks and observe their behaviour, feeding areas, and breeding patterns. Within the yr between November 2021, after they initiated a pilot examine, and the tip of 2022, they observed a lower within the variety of sharks as vacationers progressively returned.
Blacktips, named after the distinctive black colouring on their dorsal fins and tails, roam the Andaman Sea and different tropical areas in reducing numbers attributable to overfishing, in response to the Worldwide Union for Conservation of Nature.
Quite a few elements have an effect on the sharks round Phi Phi Leh Island, together with seasonal motion patterns and human exercise like fishing, Metavee stated.
However with the variety of sharks already dwindling, authorities and conservationists are intent on preserving vacationers from swimming within the bay and driving away the newborn sharks, which conceal within the shallows and coral reefs from the cannibalistic adults.
“We hope that with the restrictions in place, we are able to mitigate the disturbance to (the sharks). We’re doing this analysis in hopes that we are able to discover one of the simplest ways to handle and one of the simplest ways for tourism and the setting to coexist,” Metavee stated.
Tourism is a key driver of Thailand’s financial system, accounting for 12% of GDP earlier than the pandemic. The Southeast Asian nation is hoping to generate 1.5 trillion baht from as much as 30 million vacationers this yr.
For Phi Phi Island Nationwide Park, annual income was virtually halved from 638.3 million baht ($18.7 million) in 2018 to 373.6 million baht in 2019 after authorities closed the seashore.
The pandemic additional crippled the struggling business.
Beneath strain from tour operators, authorities reopened Maya Bay in January 2022 after 4 years of closure, and customer and income figures are as soon as once more rising steadily.
However authorities have maintained restrictions on entry.
Tour boats should dock on the opposite facet of the island from the seashore; guests should stroll to the seashore; the variety of guests allowed each hour is capped at 375, and they’re allowed to wade solely knee-deep into the water.
“When you can create a brand new picture of Maya Bay as a nature reserve … I believe that’s truly going to create a brand new tourism scheme as nicely and we (are) going to learn from it total,” stated Nationwide Parks Division advisor Petch.