Paradise lost: Beautiful islands ruined by tourism

Oliver Smith

Phi Phi Islands, Thailand

Twenty years ago this little archipelago in the Andaman Sea really was paradise – and practically unknown – making it the perfect filming location for the big screen adaptation of The Beach, Alex Garland’s novel about the search for untouched backpacker heaven. Now as many as 5,000 people arrive each day on boat trips from the bustling mainland resorts of Krabi and Phuket, turning Maya Bay, the sheltered cove where much of the movie takes place, into a selfie-taking free-for-all. The situation has become so bad that Thai authorities recently announced plans to completely close Maya Bay for four months this summer (June 1 until September 30) to give the surrounding coral reef a chance to recover.

The tactic has been used on other Thai beaches but this will be the first time that Maya Bay is closed to travellers. “Parts of the Similans and Surin islands have been closed in the past to let the corals recover, but this is a first for Maya Bay,” explained Lee Cobaj, Telegraph Travel’s Thailand expert. “The closure will be in the middle of low season, when rain is pretty persistent, so I can’t imagine too many tourists will be turned away. But the beach is stupidly busy in high season so it’s good to see Thailand putting nature ahead of profits for once.”

Back when Leo was finding fame in Danny Boyle’s film, Thailand was still considered fairly “off the beaten track”. These days that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Last year 35.4m people visited the country, up from 5.3m in 1990. That’s a lot of unspoiled islands turning into tourists traps (like Ko Phangan, where an airport is currently under construction).

And further growth is expected. In 2018, Thailand is predicting 37.6m tourists will visit.

At a glance | The growth of tourism in Thailand

Boracay, The Philippines

While not as dramatic as Thailand’s, The Philippines has also experienced a surge in tourists. Just over one million went there in 1990 – last year that figure was 6.6m. And almost a third of those tourists – more than two million – visited one tiny island measuring just 3.98 square miles and with a resident population of just 30,000: Boracay. It’s all the more remarkable when you consider that the Philippines has 7,640 other islands to choose from, according to the most recent estimate from the country’s National Mapping and Resource Information Authority.

The countries with the most islands (and the idyllic ones you must visit)

A decade ago, Boracay certainly was worth visiting. The magazine Travel+Leisure declared it the best island in the world back in 2012, thanks largely to the powder soft sand of White Beach. Today, according to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, it’s a “cesspool”. His verdict came after a video showing sewage flowing directly into Boracay’s blue waters went viral. The controversial leader castigated local authorities for permitting unchecked development and dispatched an emergency government taskforce to save the island from an ecological catastrophe. Inspectors found over 800 environmental violations.

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