In 2004 Ko Phi Phi was ravaged by a catastrophic tsunami that hit this small island in Thailand, killing upwards of 2,000 people, and causing massive structural damage.
75% of the island’s man-made constructs were destroyed, and Phi Phi was evacuated by the Thai government for a period of time. To the credit of its inhabitants, and the hundreds of people both local and foreign who worked for months to clear the wreckage and shed gallons of sweat in the rebuilding efforts, Phi Phi recovered quickly. Visible trace of the tragedy was nowhere to be spotted.
Little did the inhabitants of Phi Phi know that a different sort of destructive storm was coming their way.
We recently visited Phi Phi (pronounced “Pee Pee”, much to our juvenile glee) and stayed on the island for a week. I would love to say that we fell in lust with this one time tropical paradise, but that’s just not the case. In fact, we sort of hated it, which made us sad. We REALLY wanted to like Phi Phi.
So, why didn’t we?
Don’t get us wrong, Phi Phi is gorgeous.
There are parts of the island that are absolutely astounding. The shoreline is lush, veiled with greenery, dotted with limestone cliffs and small sandy beaches. More cliffs stand offshore, seemingly bursting straight up from the aqua sea to tower hundreds of feet into the air like giants closing in on the island. Warm water gently laps onto the powdered white sands of the beach, which in turn stretches out towards an open blue sky. Truly beautiful. It’s no wonder that twenty-five years ago Phi Phi was an island destined for fame and renown.
Co-starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie “The Beach” Phi Phi is a bit like a mercurial, hard-drinking, hard-partying celebrity whose star ascended too quick, burned too brightly, and is now heading for a dramatic meltdown. The island is a prime example of over-exposure leading to rapid, uncontrolled, and poorly planned development with an apparent lack of oversight.
The pace at which tourism on the island is growing is unsustainable. Proof of that is everywhere one looks. Refuse lays piled up in heaps alongside stretches of certain roads, buzzing with flies. Brown streams of waste snake out of many points along the shore into the majestic water circling Phi Phi, grimly illustrating a losing battle with waste disposal. The island produces 25 to 40 tonnes of waste a DAY depending on the season, but can only afford to ship a portion of that to the mainland for disposal. As a result burning trash, or dumping it into the waters, is a common occurrence.
The ever-shifting amorphous sea of tourist faces, emboldened by lack of over sight, and many imbibed brews, appear oblivious to the waste and damage they leave in their wake.
A majority of the tourists located around the center of the island are young and very party oriented. Their goal on Phi Phi seems to be getting trashed, and trashing the island around them. The locals are nothing more than a backdrop, a bit of exotic charm that sets the stage for “epic” tourist drinking binges. Drunk by noon, trashed by midnight young gals and shirtless lads quaff double fisted drinks or sip fro large buckets of booze mixers. The laser lights strum as the music throbs and swells, overwhelming all else along the beach.
Party ends at 4:00 am, rest, rise, rinse, repeat.
Tonsai Village, Phi Phi’s little town, is teeming with people, a large majority of whom are tourists. The island is host to over 1,000 foreign faces a day.
Every single building crammed onto the narrow streets is either a dive shop, a trinket shop, a tattoo parlor, a mini-mart, a tour tout, a hotel, a massage parlor, a guest house, or a restaurant. All are catering to tourism, and all are charging about 30% more than almost anywhere else in Thailand. Any flavor that this island once had, any bit of real life that existed here, seems to have been snuffed out by commercialism.
This is not to say that Phi Phi is a terrible place for everyone. If you are staying on a resort (which produce a large percentage of the waste, by the way) located in a remote area reachable only by boat, or are on Phi Phi to dive, you will probably have a great time.
Same goes for anyone looking to party and urinate into the water outside of a bass thumping beach bar at 3:00 am. However, if you are a budget traveler that is looking for peace, quite, and a bit of relaxation you are better suited visiting elsewhere. In fact, that might be what’s best for the island. Taking a break from tourism isn’t in anyone’s economic interests, but at some point soon local leaders will have to put their heads together and deal with a situation on Phi Phi that is regrettably heading towards an ecological and cultural crisis.
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What are the solutions?
Well, regulating tourist population is a good place to start. Currently there are no restrictions for how many tourists can visit the island. There was a proposal to institute such a measure in 2006 but it was quickly shot down by local businesses and their investors.
Another step that can be taken is to increase the tourist “tax” levied against visitors. Everyone who arrives on the island via the marina pays a 20 Baht ($0.62) entrance fee. This price should be raised, probably by about 500%. This would help the island better fund trash removal and invest in stricter marine life conservation methods.
Third would be a bit of enforced garbage removal. Perhaps every tourist should be responsible for taking a bag of their own trash off of the island when they leave via ferry. That what lessen the burden on the island by a noticeable amount.
Fourth, education of local tour providers on how to lessen the damaging impact of their trade on marine life. One day while on the island we took a boat trip to Maya beach. Our “longtail” vessel pulled into the bay and we were told walk, over coral, onto shore. This is a HUGE no no, as even light contact can damage the fragile reefs. Our guide insisted we do so, to the point of yelling at us when we balked. Obviously, a deeper understanding of why destroying marine life will damage Phi Phi’s ecological balance and long term tourism industry is in order.
Now, all of the above would require government intervention and would result in decreased tourist traffic, which would negatively impact economic investment into the island by the powers that be in Thailand. Thus, regrettably, we hold no hopes that any of these measures will be enacted. This leaves us wondering who will save Phi Phi, and when.
We can only hope somebody acts soon, before Phi Phi crashes hard.
For more on the ideas and philosophies behind responsible tourism, please check out our massive article on how to be a responsible tourist.
For tips on how to be a responsible tourist in Thailand, check out this article from our friends at Don’t Forget to Move.