A MARTINEZ, HOST:
Thailand has reopened one of its most famous tourist attractions. Maya Bay was shut down in 2018 to save an ecosystem ravaged by swarms of visitors. COVID-related travel restrictions kept it closed even longer than planned. And that may have helped, as Michael Sullivan reports.
MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The Leonardo DiCaprio film "The Beach" put the hook in deep for many would-be visitors with a manic Robert Carlyle obsessing wildly about the hidden gem to a bemused DiCaprio in a Bangkok hotel.
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ROBERT CARLYLE: (As Daffy) A lagoon, you know, a tidal lagoon sits sealed in the cliffs - totally [expletive] secret. And nobody can ever - ever, ever, ever - go there ever.
SULLIVAN: Man, was he wrong about that because after that movie, it seems like everyone came here. The first time I came was 15 years ago. And the place, it was still gorgeous. But it was overrun with tourists and long-tailed boats, spewing smoke, bringing even more. But not anymore. Today, the beach and the bay are pretty much exactly as he described them. But there are rules.
(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE REVVING)
SULLIVAN: The boats now have to dock on the other side of the island, no more dragging anchors through the coral, no more people polluting the water with sunscreen and trash as they wade in.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Two people?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes.
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SULLIVAN: Visitors to the island now pay a park fee of about $12 on arrival, then take a scenic jungle boardwalk to the sparkling blue-green waters and white crescent sand of Maya Bay, where you can dip your toe in for that selfie, but no more.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hello.
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SULLIVAN: Rangers now patrol the beach constantly, whistling violators out of the water. And they ain't playing.
SUTHEP CHAIKAO: (Through interpreter) Today we gave a French tourist a 5,000 baht fine for swimming in the bay. One of the rangers warned him the first time by blowing his whistle. Then he went a second time. So we had to give him a fine.
SULLIVAN: That's about $175. And Suthep Chaikao says he's given out half a dozen since the reopening. He likes the way things are going.
CHAIKAO: (Through interpreter) Am I happier working here now? One-hundred percent. Back then, I'd wake up at 5 a.m., and there would be boats in the bay already. The sun wasn't even up yet and they were already here. Back then, they didn't have a proper opening or closing time either. So tourists would just come whenever they wanted.
SULLIVAN: But in the 3 1/2 years Maya Bay has been closed, he says, the transformation has been amazing. Even the blacktip sharks are breeding here again.
CHAIKAO: (Through interpreter) Back in 2018, before we closed, you couldn't even think about seeing a shark. You couldn't even see a three-inch fish. Now on a good day, you can see over 160 sharks. And when the tide goes down, you can see all the new coral and crabs and shrimps. It makes us very proud.
SULLIVAN: Yes, the beach can still look a little crowded. But not a lot of tourists seem to mind. Susanne Wiegratz is from Germany. She's in pharmaceuticals but is a marine biologist by training.
How was it?
SUSANNE WIEGRATZ: Gorgeous. Wonderful. I really don't know. My English words are not enough (laughter). To see this beautiful spot - most beautiful spot on Earth that I've ever seen.
SULLIVAN: It gets better because one of her travelling partners, Fenna Tobin, had to quarantine after arriving in Thailand and testing positive for COVID. This is her second day out of quarantine.
Was it worth it?
FENNA TOBIN: Yes (laughter). Totally.
SULLIVAN: It was worth 10 days of quarantine?
TOBIN: Because it's so, so beautiful. And, yeah, now I'm so calm now.
AMIE HEMTHANON: One, two, three. Oh, wow. It's just like your private island, see?
UNIDENTIFIED TOURIST: Oh, great. Love it.
HEMTHANON: Ooh. Nice, huh?
UNIDENTIFIED TOURIST: Yeah. One day, it will be.
UNIDENTIFIED TOURIST: Thank you very much.
HEMTHANON: You're welcome.
SULLIVAN: Tour guide Amie Hemthanon is herding a group off the beach. Only 375 people are allowed per hour. And their hour is up.
HEMTHANON: To me now, as long as people can follow these rules, it's going to be fine. I've been talking to them like, what we can do, what we cannot do - what we should do, what we should not do. And lucky me - my customer, they are so nice. They listen to me. And they do what I ask for.
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SULLIVAN: Marine biologist Thon Thamrongnawasawat at Bangkok's Kasetsart University spearheaded the effort to save Maya Bay. Originally set to last just two years, he worried it wouldn't be enough. Then came COVID. With pandemic travel restrictions, that two years turned into four. And Maya Bay, he says, flourished.
THON THAMRONGNAWASAWAT: So now we have evidence to show other people. If we give Mother Nature a chance, she can come back. So that four year mean a lot more than two year.
SULLIVAN: And as long as the government keeps limiting the number of visitors and keeps them out of the water, he sees no reason why Maya Bay can't continue to flourish and serve as a model for other nearby destinations.
For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Maya Bay, Phi Phi Ley Island, Thailand.
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