Thai beach made famous by Leonardo DiCaprio movie closes to tourism

Tourists walk the beach of Maya Bay, Phi Phi Leh island in Krabi province, Thailand, which will close to tourists for four months from Friday to give its coral reefs and sea life a chance to recover. (AP)
Updated 31 May 2018
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Thai beach made famous by Leonardo DiCaprio movie closes to tourism

  • Thailand has promoted unfettered tourism for decades and the onslaught on Maya Bay, which is on Phi Phi Leh Island in the Andaman Sea, has only picked up pace in recent years
  • Thailand has promoted unfettered tourism for decades and the onslaught on Maya Bay, which is on Phi Phi Leh Island in the Andaman Sea, has only picked up pace in recent years

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. Now it’s getting a break.
After Friday, the daily influx of dozens of boats and thousands of visitors unsuccessfully scrambling for an unspoiled view of Maya Bay’s emerald waters and glistening white sand will end. The attraction is being closed for four months to give its coral reefs and sea life a chance to recover.
Thailand has promoted unfettered tourism for decades and the onslaught on Maya Bay, which is on Phi Phi Leh Island in the Andaman Sea, has only picked up pace in recent years. Authorities now say they are striving to balance profit and conservation and the closure will happen every year.
It’s part of a rethink happening globally about unrestricted tourism that brings in 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.
“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.”
But locals aren’t entirely happy. The head of the Phi Phi Tourist Business Association, Watrapol Jantharo, said he was surprised when the closure was announced in March by Thailand’s National Parks and Wildlife Department.
He said locals were under the impression that Maya Bay would only be closed to boats, while visitors would still walk to the bay from the other side of the island.
“We are not against protecting our environment,” he said. “We know full well that Maya Bay is our important resource, like a rice field to a farmer, but we wish there are more communications about the government’s plan before the decision was made.”
Thon, however, said the plan was discussed with locals for three years before a decision was made.
“In the past, we made some mistake because we think that the money is very important. But now we are trying to change our idea,” he said. Overseas visitors are “very important to our country, but the most important thing is our national resource. We have to preserve and hand it to the next generation.”
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 Watrapol.
Thailand’s efforts to protect certain islands after decades of unregulated tourism began about three years ago under the current military junta, which has banned the types of protests such moves may have sparked had they been announced by civilian governments.
Yoong Island, part of the Phi Phi island chain, and Tachai Island in the Similan Islands National Park, have been off-limits to tourists since mid-2016.
Thon, who surveyed both islands recently, said he was amazed by the results. Waters that were devoid of fish are now teeming, he said, and there is about 10,000 square meters (107,600 square feet) of newly recovered coral off one of the islands.
At Maya Bay, park rangers have been preparing a coral propagation program, attaching it to rocks that will be placed in the bay once the tourists are gone.
“We’re almost certain that something good will happen in Maya Bay,” Thon said.


Magical Madrid: The unique charms of the Spanish capital

Madrid the capital of Spain. (Shutterstock)
Updated 13 November 2018
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Magical Madrid: The unique charms of the Spanish capital

  • Madrid is a European capital like no other
  • Madrid’s blockbuster sights regally lived up to their generations-old hype

LONDON: It was bad luck that brought me to Madrid — or perhaps fate. Midway through a two-month road trip around Southern Europe, diligently skirting the coasts of Portugal and Spain, but with no intention of venturing inland, my 20-year-old campervan broke down in the scorching Andalusian planes, some 30 km outside Seville, officially the warmest city in Europe.
My fate was sealed by the calendar as much as the location: It wasn’t just that I blamed the searing summer sun for overheating my ancient engine, but also for thwarting any chance of its repair. For the month of “Agosto,” I soon learned, the south of Spain simply shuts down. There wasn’t a garage in town with the faintest bit of interest in fixing my motor. And so, after a fortnight of shade-seeking 40-degree days and flamenco-filled nights in Seville, I impulsively rented a car and made a spontaneous six-hour road trip to Madrid. And whatever the repair bill ended up being, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Arriving exhausted at dusk, I emerged from my air-conditioned car to find the climate completely transformed, temperatures hovering in the pleasant mid-twenties, surrounded by commuters ambling amiably to street-side tavernas rather than racing to the metro — or hiding indoors like their southern compatriots.

Hurried logic (and a whiff of luck) had brought me to the south-western edge of the central Sol barrio, a maze of winding streets with colorful cafés and tapas joints that seem to be as busy for breakfast as in the early hours, entertaining a constant flow of customers and an insistent throb of lively chat. It was the perfect tonic for the breakdown blues.
Arriving without preconception or preparation had its benefits. I was free to follow whims, enjoying the kind of aimlessness which can only be bred through enforced limbo. Evenings drifted by nibbling gambas al ajillo (garlic prawns) and pimientos de padrón (padrón peppers), while practicing my newly acquired Spanish with friendly locals at Bodegas Melibea, an audaciously decorated café with wide open windows offering cooling vistas of the ever-changing street scene.

Madrid’s blockbuster sights regally lived up to their generations-old hype. The Plaza Major really could not be better named — a bright rectangular space built around the turn of the 16th century, lined with interconnected regal rows of identical three-story buildings, sporting a total of 237 tiny balconies.
Grander still is the Royal Palace of Madrid, a magnificent maze of 3,418 rooms which make it Europe’s largest royal residence. Be sure to stop at the nearby Temple of Debod, an ancient Egyptian temple donated to Spain and incongruously rebuilt in the early 1970s.
I had heard of the Prado Museum, of course, and held some inkling of its famed depth and breadth, but little could prepare me for the boggling floorplan and epic catalogue of art, which stretches from the 12th to 20th centuries. At any one time, only about 1,300 of the institution’s collection of more than 20,000 works is on display — but that still means that if you entered at 10 a.m., stayed until closing time at 8 p.m., and took zero breaks, you would have the equivalent of 27 seconds to view each work. Time is likely to be considerably tighter when an extension is unveiled next year, coinciding with the Prado’s 200th anniversary.

Temple of Debod. (Shutterstock)

More manageable and equally essential is the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, one of Europe’s greatest exhibitors of 20th-century artists which pays homage to the country’s headline exports Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí — including staging the former’s epic “Guernica,” a stark, monochrome Spanish Civil War epic which rightfully ranks among the century’s greatest cultural achievements. At 7.7 meters wide, it’s a work that no postcard or textbook reproduction can do justice to — a statement which needs to be experienced in the flesh, and studied up close, to appreciate even a jot of its power, scope or intent.
Madrid is simply magical. Not in that quaint, stately, Western European way of Vienna or Prague, nor with the pretentious powerhouse vibe of Paris or London. And nothing like the crumbling grandeur of Mediterranean neighbors Rome and Athens. It’s a European capital like no other — and it’s the one I’d move to in a heartbeat.