The ‘Phuket Sandbox’ launched on the 1st July, the first stage of Thailand’s plan to open up to international tourism since the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the world. Dive operators are hoping to welcome guests back to a rejuvenated and more sustainable Thailand. The Phuket Sandbox is Stage one of a plan to gradually open the country back up to tourism. If the Phuket Sandbox goes to plan, several more regions will open in October, including Krabi, Phang Nga, Surat Thani (including Ko Samui, Ko Phangan and Ko Tao), Chonburi (including Pattaya) and Chiang Mai.
While the world stood still, Phuket has improved its infrastructure and is preparing once again to be the much-loved holiday destination it once was. In lockdown, Phuket has also significantly improved the health and abundance of its surrounding marine life.
Some improvements have been intentional, most notably the closure of tourist hot spots, Maya Bay, Koh Tachai and Koh Yoong areas within the marine parks. Some changes have taken place naturally due to the absence of mass tourism, such as endangered leatherback turtles returning to Phuket’s sandy shores to lay their eggs.
Danny Boyle’s film ‘The Beach’ made Maya Bay as famous as it is. The depiction of a hedonistic secret paradise in Thailand’s hidden crystal-clear bay encouraged a huge surge in tourism to the area. Despite the fact that ‘The Beach’ was supposed to be located in the Gulf of Thailand, closer to Samui, Koh Phang Ngan and Koh Tao, Maya Bay was the location chosen for the film, for its magnificent limestone cliffs and enticing turquoise waters. Chasing paradise consequently influenced thousands of tourists to visit the small area every day and this came at a price.
With hundreds of speedboats and hordes of people littering the bay each day, a visit to the iconic Thai attraction was no longer a thing of beauty, it was downright unpleasant. The authorities closed Maya Bay completely back in 2018, to help regenerate and preserve the bay, and the results have been outstanding.
The closure of Maya Bay is a testament to Thailand’s efforts to address the negative impacts of tourism on marine life. According to Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Maya Bay is now home to well over 100 black-tip reef sharks, the highest localised shark population in Thai waters.
With the closure of beaches during Phuket’s first lockdown and the drastic reduction in tourist numbers and light pollution, rare Leatherback turtles have returned to the beaches to lay their eggs. Leatherbacks are the world’s largest species of sea turtles and are listed as endangered in Thailand. Dr Kongkiat Kittiwatanawong, the director of the Phuket Marine Biological Center, said this is the greatest number of leatherback sea turtle nests that Thailand’s beaches have seen in 20 years.
Phuket-based Holger Schwab, Managing Director of Sea Bees Diving, says, “Pandemics may be awful, but they are teaching us valuable lessons. Most of those lessons relate to humans’ treatment of the Earth. It’s possible that these lessons will spark a long-term change in conservation. Perhaps this means a different type of tourism model in the future, slower and more considerate of the ecosystem we are working within”.
Scuba diving in the Andaman Sea can often offer some of the best experiences in the world, thanks to its dazzling and colourful marine life, with world-class dive sites including Richelieu Rock, Ko Ha, Hin Deang and Hin Muang.
During the first stages of reopening the region to tourism, Phuket can now offer much richer underwater experiences to visitors, with the most sought-after diving spots now much quieter and a joy to dive.
“We are seeing an increase in certain species, there’s more anemone fish and barracuda in the Andaman Sea than ever before.
“A more sustainable approach to enjoying our underwater world has been needed for a long time, and we hope that the effects of the pandemic prove to be positive in this regard for the marine parks in the Andaman region”.
More information on the Phuket Sandbox here.