Two decades ago, the idyllic bay was transformed for the cult classic starring Leo DiCaprio. Today, the area is still struggling with the ecological fallout.
In the 2000 film The Beach, a young Leonardo DiCaprio, hot off Titanic fame, plays a young backpacker who discovers a tropical paradise in the form of a secluded beach, home to a community of travelers.
Despite its cult classic status, The Beach was a critical flop—DiCaprio was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for worst actor, and today the film ranks as one of the worst Danny Boyle ever directed. But though both the film’s director and stars moved on from the tropical-themed blip in their career, the filming location—located on southern Thailand’s Phi Phi Leh island—remains mired in an environmental crisis caused by the filming of the movie between 1998 and 1999, according to local officials.
On Tuesday 13/09/22, Thailand’s Supreme Court upheld a previous ruling for the Royal Forest Department to continue with rehabilitation works on the beach and island. It also upheld a 2019 agreement made between the plaintiffs and the two film production companies—20th Century Fox and Thai film studio Santa International Film Productions—to provide 10 million baht (around $273,000) for the rehabilitation project, funded by the U.S. firm.
When The Beach film crew arrived on the white sand beach of Maya Bay 24 years ago to shoot the movie’s most iconic scenes, they gave the area a makeover which included uprooting native plants and introducing alien species—changes that local officials say have severely damaged the local ecosystem.
The years following the movie’s release also saw hoards of tourists flock to Maya Bay and its surrounding islands, which put further pressure on the beach’s environment, as pollution from tourist activity destroyed nearby coral. In 2018, local officials shut the beach indefinitely as part of a rehabilitation plan, before reopening it in January this year.
Tuesday’s ruling came more than 20 years after the first lawsuit was filed. Back in 1999, local authorities and environmentalists sought 100 million baht in compensation in a civil lawsuit filed against senior Thai government officials and the two production studios involved in the filming of The Beach. However, the court only accepted their case in 2012, more than a decade after filming had wrapped.
After reportedly paying the Royal Forestry Department four million baht to film at the location, The Beach film crew made drastic changes to the beach’s landscape in an attempt to create a more cinematic tropical aesthetic. Bushes that naturally lined the beach, which held sand together and prevented erosion, were torn out and replaced with dozens of mature palm trees that were not previously there.
“From what I see everything is okay. I have seen nothing that had been damaged in any way,” he said.
But even as his team tried to return the beach to its original state after filming, removing the palm trees, replanting those plants they had uprooted, and setting up bamboo fences along the beach to hold sand in place, large amounts of sand continued to be washed out to sea. After the shoot was over, witnesses described the beach as a “forlorn scene of ugly bamboo fences and dead native plants,” the Guardian reported.
The ecological damage was exacerbated in the years that followed. By 2018 the Hollywood-famous island was welcoming about 4,000 tourists and 200 boats every day.
Maya Bay was reopened to visitors in January this year after more than three years of closure for rehabilitation, but with a cap on tourist numbers and visiting hours. However, it was closed again last month for another period of environmental restoration, with plans for reopening in October.