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While Thailand’s travel industry is tormented by the loss of tourism due to the global novel coronavirus outbreak, the environment is experiencing a dramatically different effect. Could the decrease in travel and marine pollution help Thailand’s rapidly deteriorating underwater ecosystems, especially the coral reefs, on their way to recovery back from the dead?

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Coral reefs around the world have been facing extinction, which is especially bad news for our planet: Coral reefs are responsible for generating half of Earth’s oxygen and absorb nearly one-third of the carbon dioxide generated from burning fossil fuels. Some scientists have even gone as far as to describe The Great Barrier Reef being in the ‘terminal’ stages of its lifespan. This is all a direct result of overtourism, climate change, and marine pollution. Thailand’s coral reefs are no exception and have been known to deteriorate for years.

Scientific estimates however couldn’t predict one variable: A global pandemic that seizes all travel and drives the whole world into a lockdown, drastically reducing air and marine pollution into a minimum. What kind of effect has COVID-19 restrictions made for marine life, and how will it aid in the coral restoration efforts?

School of mackerel fish underwater in Koh Tao, Thailand

The long history of tourist restrictions in Thailand

Every time nature has suffered damages from overtourism, the Thai government has invoked its strongest weapon: Travel restrictions. This gives us some idea of what kind of positive effects the coronavirus pandemic might have, and how the ecological recovery has worked in the past.

One of the most famous barred destinations has been the Maya Bay. Its popularity soared after the release of travelers cult-classic Hollywood flick The Beach, starring heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio, as some scenes were filmed there.

This resulted in up to 5,000 tourists turning up there a day at the peak of its fame, which lasted for 18 years. As a result, the officials reported that up to 50 percent of the Bay’s coral had died.

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Maya Bay was closed from all travel in 2018 and will remain closed until 2021. At the same time, marine biologists had already planted 23,000 corals during last year. At the same time infrastructure has been improved, while also applying daily visitor limits according to marine biologist recommendations.

The rectangular outlines in the water show the coral garden nurseries that have been built in Maya Bay. Photo: James Wendlinger

Yet the impact of the closure and the conservation work has already produced such positive results that it is being described as Thailand’s conservation miracle.

The seabirds are back, and even the monkeys are back. Before, the monkeys were shot to protect the tourists.

Anuar Abdullah, Founder and CEO of Social Enterprise Ocean Quest Global

Coronavirus pandemic has forced a closure of all travel in Thailand, and the beaches remained closed for some time. Together with the Maya Bay experience, the marine biologists received valuable information how travel closures exactly promote coral reefs recovery.

While coronavirus lockdowns itself will not bring the corals back alive, many areas have already shown positive signs, such as the Shark Point and the East of Eden dive destinations near Phuket.

However, the collected information on travel lockdowns will aid marine biologists to design effective conversation strategies, with solid proof to present for government officials of the effects. After that, the fate of coral reefs lies in the Thai officials’ hands, who hold the power to protect these irreplaceable marvels of nature.

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