In 2004 Ko Phi Phi was ravaged by a catastrophic tsunami that hit the 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 along side 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.
18 thoughts on “Ko Phi Phi, Thailand: A Small Island in Need of Big Help”
Phi Phi is just the latest in a long line of Thailand’s issues (see Phuket and Pattaya for the most dramatic ones). I’ve declined to visit, which makes it hard to see for myself, though I’ve seen some of the signs around other islands in the southern part of Thailand.
The good news: there are still plenty of islands and beautiful places mass tourism hasn’t yet touched. Ko Jum, for example. The Klong Muang area of Krabi comes to mind as well.
Chris, Sadly you are right. Thailand has a lot of issues it will have to resolve re: tourism. And yes, many place that untouched, but for how long? Stricter regulation is very necessary.
Yep so true. Once the annihilation of Phi Phi is complete, the tourists will be herded to other pristine islands which will eventually suffer the same fate. Sad
Saving (or is it curing) Tourism ‘infested’ destinations is not a cake walk particularly if it is the after effects of ‘disaster tourism’. You are sad because the island has lost its tourism (whether RT or what ever adjectives you might want to use) prospects. I am sure that there must be graver socio-economic and ethical issues than losing tourism market. Like in any modern development fields, the cry always comes when it is too late and only when you are unable to operate there. All the suggestions made by you to rescue the island are Utopian because if there was such a thinking in the politicians, this would not have happened in the first place. We have always opposed the general tendency to open the flood gates to tourists as a post disaster economic rehabilitation process . But philanthropists and ethical tourism lobby argues and launches ‘disaster tourism’ in such places as an economical rehabilitation scheme. Oblivious to what happened in places like phi phi, we can see this happening in Nepal and Greece. In fact post disaster (natural or economic) rehabilitation is a slow, concerted socio-economic, socio-cultural and psychological process that needs greater foresight than launching ‘disaster tourism’. Tourism Industry, this is not your cup tea.
Sadly we didn’t enjoy PhiPphi island either. It was engulfed with bars, night clubs, and restaurants leaving it feeling really vacant, and souless. There is no island left, just rows of unsustainable development.
When were you guys there? I feel if that island stopped catering to 22 year old backpackers it could recover quickly, but right now its on a collision course with destruction =(
Great post, and very sad to hear that about Phi Phi.
I visited the Island in 2012 and I really enjoyed it (I visited in early November, a bit off season, so maybe it was better?). Although quite busy, it was still possible to find secluded large areas on the beach, nearly empty int he hike to the top of the mountain with the look out, and a spot at any of the restaurants. I went to a couple of bars but didn’t party hard, and thought the atmosphere was quite nice for casual drinks! Having said that, my hotel was a bit off the beaten track, and even there, about an 18 minute walk from all the bars, I could hear the music until 4am.
I honestly didn’t notice a garbage problem, but maybe I just wasn’t paying too much attention, but can see how that would be an issue as the island is relatively small. As you mentioned, it could be worse at peak times, but definitely something that needs to be addressed before it turns into a problem that can’t be fixed.
Aw.. So sad to hear phi phi is changing into a highly charged dumping ground.. Such a beautiful place we saw in 2007.. Reminants of the tsunami were still visible but such charming waters and people will stay with me for a lifetime.. So maybe I will just never go back and it will always remain beautiful to me.
I saw something similar in the island of Zakynthos, Greece when I was volunteering at a sea turtle rescue center last year. Almost all of the nesting beaches for the Caretta Caretta were destroyed by the party business and the island is facing problems with decline in tourism. It’s really sad to see beautiful places destroy by tourism 🙁
My girlfriend and I visited Phi Phi in June 2015 during the off season. It was quiet, peaceful and the food to die for. The two main beach fronts were still full of people enjoying themselves in the evenings and it didn’t seem chaotic as it seems you experienced.
I am not so sure the island is catering just for 22 year old backpackers. There are plenty of ‘luxury resort’ type hotels on the island that were full of retired/middle aged folks.
For me, the beauty of the island was in the landscape, the locals and the views. Bars full of drunk travellers/tourists/backpackers happens everywhere. It is easy to see past the islands beauty if the party is what gets focus.
Just read your article. When i first visited Phi Phi it WAS a paradise. I learned diving there. On the island only small cabanas. Some dive operators. A small street at the beach with restaurants. In the evening the sound of generators because electricity collapsed all the time. Snorkeling in front of the beach you easily saw small reef sharks. We went to Maya Bay for some diving, stayed at the bay for lunch and rested for hours on the white sand. NOBODY ELSE there. Can you imagine? In a way i am part of the problems today. Because i told friends about this paradise. But that´s only a part of the story. The REAL change came when some guy from Bangkok with a lot of money was allowed to build a real hotel with concrete, 2 floors. Then the tourism Tsunami started. Hotel after hotel, speed boats for day trips. Not the backpackers are the origin of this sad story. Raising the entrance fees? Will only bring luxury resorts destroying more.
Really interesting post and nice pictures.
Your blog is amazing
Hi, great post, thank you for writing this.
It’s so easy to visit a destination and be unaware of the real (often unintended) impact of tourism in the waste that it creates and environmental pollution it can cause. I visited some other Thai islands last year (the Trang islands – Koh Mook in particular – and was really saddened to see the piles of plastic bottles just heaped up near the beach, with nowhere to go.
One of the simplest and best sustainable travel practices I recommend is making sure you take a re-usable aluminium water bottle on your trip – if everyone did this while travelling we would solve a huge proportion of the world’s waste water bottle problem.
It has also been positive to see the Thai authorities stepping up earlier this year and closing off 3 Islands to tourism to protect the coral – but as you say, with Phi Phi, it seems the sacrifice in terms of tourist baht is too big…. I hope that we will see bolder and more measures being taken and increased awareness from all of us as travellers!
Happy travelling, Ellie
In the last 14 month we have spent a lot of time exploring many of Thailand’s islands. Even the less visited islands are already suffering from the impacts of tourism and the inadequate infrastructure on mainland and resort islands. The rubbish washing up on the shore is simply astonishing. Any coral reef that day tourists are being taken to is being damaged. Many tourist have no idea about coral or snorkelling. The tourists we see a lot of around these islands simple don a life jacket and flounder around in the water. In the water these tourist are seen standing on the coral, sitting on the coral, kicking coral with their flippers. They are more interested in taking selfies of themselves on the reef. I don’t believe they would have the slightest interested to learn that the corals are animals that they are killing by standing on. I have seen the same thing in Indonesia, Cambodia and Malaysia. In Vietnam the guides at least told the tourists not to stand on the coral – however, the fact they didn’t reinforce the rule made it null and void and the tourist went on their merry way standing on the coral. In Australia you will be told to get out of the water if, once you have been warned, you are seen standing on the coral again.
Thanks for your insight Kelly. It’s not just a lack of education or ignorance but corruption plays a big part in Southeast Asia, meaning any regulatory breaks are disregarded for money.
It’s really a horrible reality. So short sighted, and ignorant. Not sure what there is to be done other than trying to educate people on an individual level. Sure we can lend exposure to the issue by writing about it here and on social media, but the topic of sustainable travel is often ignored by a large majority of tourists regardless how loud we yell and point and shout.
this is reality. But Government and other related departments should take steps to maintain those areas.
I love Thailand, the islands, the people, the foods, …., fantastic!