How one resort is fighting to save Thailand’s Phi Phi Islands

Phi Phi Islands, Thailand CNN  — 

That Thailand’s Phi Phi Islands are among the country’s most popular beach destinations should come as little surprise to anyone.

Home to Maya Bay – made famous by the release of 2000 film “The Beach” starring Leonardo DiCaprio – they’re ridiculously stunning, a place where towering limestone cliffs frame frosty white beaches.

But like countless tourist hotspots before them, Phi Phi’s beauty has led to unmanageable arrival levels.

Located in Thailand’s Andaman Sea about 46 kilometers from Phuket, Phi Phi has two main islands – Phi Phi Leh and Phi Phi Don.

Phi Phi Leh is where you’ll find Maya Bay. There are no accommodations here, as staying overnight is prohibited.

The much larger Phi Phi Don, considered a backpacker paradise due to the abundance of budget and mid-range accommodation options in Loh Dalum, is famous for its wild party scene.

Both are part of the Hat Noppharat Thara-Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park, which according to government stats attracted over 2 million visitors in 2017. Maya Bay in particular drew an estimated 3,700 visitors a day on average, many of them day trippers roaring in on speedboats from nearby Phuket.

This year, the government took the surprising step of closing the bay to tourists for four months, from June 1 to September 30, to embark on a rejuvenation project that includes coral restoration work and the installation of a new jetty.

In search of calm

An aerial view of Phi Phi Leh, home to Maya Bay.

Due to all of the above, travelers looking for a quiet beach getaway tend to shy away from the Phi Phi Islands altogether.

But it is possible to visit the area AND avoid the crowds.

In a remote corner of Phi Phi Don lies one of the few higher-end resorts in the area, Phi Phi Island Village Beach Resort.

Set on Loh Bagao, the four-star property is made up of spacious thatched roof bungalows and villas – both hillside and beachfront.

Though hardly intimate – there are several pools and restaurants and the bungalows sprawl back from the beach into the jungle, covering a total of 70 acres – it’s a far cry from the scene you’ll find on the other side of the island, where beach parties rage into the early hours of the morning.

A small village nearby, nestled against a patch of pristine mangroves (cleaned every Sunday by the locals), offers additional dining and drinking options. Visitors can hire long-tail boats for local tours here as well.

A model for sustainable tourism

Phi Phi Island Village's new Marine Discovery Centre is free to all visitors, including non-guests.

But this isn’t just a story about another pretty Thai beach resort hidden away in an otherwise crowded tourist zone.

Phi Phi Island Village Beach Resort is owned by property-developer Singha Estate – yes, the same Singha that brews Thailand’s famed beer – which spearheaded a massive program aimed at rehabilitating the area’s suffering marine environment.

Working with the Thai government, Singha Estate played a leading role in the recent closure of Maya Bay, part of a string of operations developed to revive the Hat Noppharat Thara–Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park that all kicked off back in 2016, called the “Phi Phi Model.”

The man leading the charge on Singha Estate’s behalf? Marine biologist Dr. Thon Thamrongnawasawat.

Thon, a jovial, energetic man who isn’t afraid to dish out criticisms where they’re due, is a bit of a celebrity in Thailand.

He even loaned his vocals to the Thai-dubbed version of “Finding Dory,” playing the disembodied voice that comes over the speakers in the Marine Life Institute, where Dory hunts for her parents. (It’s a fitting role, given Thon’s passion for clownfish breeding.)

“I’m one of the most interviewed marine scientists in the world,” he tells CNN Travel with a loud laugh, saying he gives 20 or so interviews a week.

Working with the Ministry of Natural Resources and other government bodies, Thon is trying to coax in new era of sustainable tourism.

This photo taken on April 9, 2018 shows a crowd of tourists on Maya Bay beach prior to its closure.

This includes a push for better funding for park rangers, the installation of more mooring buoys in tourist areas to prevent boats from dragging their anchors along the already decimated coral reefs and a campaign to educate local communities about how to better protect their environment.

The doctor says he’s encouraged by what he’s seen already, especially efforts to regrow coral in areas made off limits to tourists – part of a plan to reduce the amount of damaged reef to less than 50% in five years.

“Everybody in Thailand is focused on the Phi Phi Model as it’s something different,” he says. “It’s not only important for Phi Phi, it’s important for the whole country. It brings us hope.”

An extension of these efforts, Phi Phi Island Village Resort recently opened a Marine Discovery Centre – also overseen by Thon.

A large, well-planned facility, it’s designed to educate tourists as well as residents from neighboring communities about marine life and ecosystems, in effect cultivating environmental consciousness.

“You need people in Phi Phi to understand how important their home is, why it’s famous,” Thon tells CNN.

“The students learn about their home from text books! Why? They live next door. We can invite students and their families to visit the resort for free and help. Every week they can come to grow small corals and join other people from around the world to release clownfish.”

Marine biologist Dr. Thon Thamrongnawasawat.

A center for both locals and tourists

The center is divided into four main zones: The Shark Room, the Phi Phi Islands Room, the Clownfish Room and the Auditorium.

The Phi Phi Islands Room focuses on the Hat Noppharat Thara-Phi Phi Islands National Park and highlights local dive sites and tourist attractions such as nature trails.

The Clownfish Room showcases different species found in Thailand and has a breeding laboratory and interactive games.

There’s also a nursery for injured animals, such as baby sharks that have been caught and wounded in fishing nets.

According to Thon, the Marine Discovery Centre will serve as a model for future learning centers, a means of highlighting the work they’re doing to rehabilitate the region.

He’s aware many think it’s too late to save Phi Phi from its own success, which only inspires him to work harder to prove them wrong.

“I love a challenge, otherwise I wouldn’t do this,” he says. “If you give nature a chance – she only needs a chance – everything can happen. I would like to know how far we can go together. “

Getting there: Phi Phi Island Village Beach Resort offers a direct boat service to the hotel via Phuket. Public ferries are also available from Railay Beach Aonang and Koh Lanta to Phi Phi’s Tonsai pier. From there, guests can take a long-tail boat to the resort.