Koh Phi Phi Leh in Thailand reopens to tourists after three-year closure

The legendary coastal paradise of Ko Phi Phi Leh in Thailand has been once again allowed to reopen for tourism after restrictions were lifted on the area.

In 2015, due to declining visitor numbers and the lessening power of strong central governments, Thailand moved away from an investment policy that incentivised development of coastal territory and began paving parts of the country’s most popular tourist destinations. More than a dozen national parks and protected areas were closed, including Ko Phi Phi Leh.

Two years on, however, many wonder if tourist numbers have yet to recover, and conservation groups warn that the area is fast becoming one of the world’s most important oceanic migration hotspots. As of the end of October, there were more than 20,000 illegal fishermen in the protected area, which holds more than 7,000 square kilometres of waters.

Now, the Thai government has given permission for Ko Phi Phi Leh to be opened to visitors, though the area will need to be thoroughly policed. The surrounding sea will be protected and rivers and canals that regularly spill off of the coast will be closed.

The government also intends to open up neighbouring Varang, also a protected marine park and one of the most popular sites on the island, including areas that have been damaged by powerful waves. Underwater caves and areas where minarets surround central neighborhoods have been heavily damaged over the years.

An aerial view of Bangkok. Thailand’s prime minister on Wednesday said he plans to meet UK prime minister Theresa May in the coming weeks to discuss mutual security issues, including the crisis in neighbouring Myanmar. Photograph: Wichai Layang/EPA

Under an agreement signed by local and central governments, the five islands and surrounding areas – inside the country’s Western Seaboard Marine Park – will receive the proper care and maintenance to safeguard against, and be aware of, natural and human-caused threats to the protection of this sensitive area.

Tourism authorities hope the investment and improved services, as well as clear signage to alert tourists of the areas closed, will bring an increase in business from the thousands of tourists who visit already and ignore the signs and stay in the area.

Alex Matthiesen, the co-founder of Bucket List Birdwatching, said he was relieved the area was being made more tourist-friendly. But he suggested that the area and its islands now need the same kind of “experience” tourism that allowed for the longer-running interest in the area following the publication of Leaving Las Vegas.

“As long as this is a truly unique place with a fascinating ecosystem, and the logistics and infrastructure are right, it will generate great opportunities and interesting stories for local and international travellers and pet owners alike,” he said.

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