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Analysis: Can Southeast Asia save its natural areas ... from tourists?

Thailand’s Maya Bay used to be a quiet cove teeming with marine life, visited by only a handful of tourists each day. Then came the 2000 film “The Beach” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, about a young American adventurer on an exotic island. By 2018, 5,000 tourists were visiting the bay, where the film had been shot, each day. Marine experts reported severe damage to the reef from boat anchors and snorkelers wearing sunscreen that contained a common chemical toxic to juvenile corals. Thailand’s national parks department announced that more than 50 percent of the bay’s corals showed signs of damage, prompting the agency to close Maya Bay indefinitely “until natural resources return to normal.”

In the Philippines, the tiny island paradise of Boracay, covering 4 square miles, was overrun by 2 million visitors in 2017, many of them from cruise ships. Last year, with hundreds of businesses and residences dumping sewage into the sea, authorities closed the island for six months to undertake a large-scale cleanup operation and developed plans to cut the number of visitors by two-thirds.

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