How Hollywood Ruined An Idyllic Thailand Beach And Is Still Paying For It

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Ever wondered what the repercussions might be of an on location film set?

More than two decades ago, cult classic The Beach, starring man of the moment Leonardo DiCaprio, picked Thailand’s idyllic Phi Phi Leh Island as its destination shooting spot. Only problem was that the location Maya Bay wasn’t enough of a paradise for the movie so 20th Century Fox decided to landscape it.

After decades of Maya Bay struggling to regenerate to what it once was, 20th Century Fox has now been ordered to pay a sum of 10 million Thai Baht, equivalent to roughly $400,000 Australian dollars.


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What’s annoying with this story is that as a movie, The Beach was received as a critical flop.

DiCaprio was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for worst actor and today the film is ranked as one of the worst of Danny Boyle movies ever made — that’s the Trainspotting director. In other words, a perfectly nice island was bulldozed and destroyed for an average film.

In the movie, DiCaprio stars as the young backpacker who seeks adventure in Thailand and discovers a secluded beach, home to other travellers.

Between 1998 and 1999, the crew infamously uprooted native plants in Maya Bay and replaced them with 60 coconut trees to give a more ‘tropical’ feel to the location. According to local officials, the native plants were helping keep together natural sand dunes and once they were ripped out, the beach began to erode into the ocean.

© 2000 – 20th Century Fox – All Rights Reserved

24 years ago, witnesses described Maya Bay as a “forlorn scene of ugly bamboo fences and dead native plants”.

Today it’s been dubbed “a textbook case of environmental colonialism”. And even though producers paid off the Thai government with donations, the “marketing ploys did not replace the native barriers and flora when the monsoon season returned”.

Following the movie’s release, tourists also flocked to Maya Bay, putting even more pressure on the beach’s environment.

Thailand’s Supreme Court ruling last week upheld a 2019 agreement for the Royal Forest Department to continue rehabilitation on the beach and the island, which has been 20 years in the making.

In 1999, local authorities and environmentalists sought 100 million baht in compensation. The court only accepted their case in 2012.

What happened on set for The Beach isn’t an isolated incident. Many many movies have come under scrutiny for the risks and damages they have caused the environment.

Like the allegations surrounding the 2017 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, of production allegedly tipping toxic waste into a Gold Coast creek. Or the Mad Max: Fury Road production that was accused of damaging Namibia’s sensitive ecosystem along Africa’s Atlantic coast.

While the true environmental costs of films are mostly invisible to audiences, if Hollywood didn’t learn from The Beach, then it is probably going to take an even bigger controversy or environmental tragedy in order for this industry to change.