Join us
Orange welcome sign that reads Royal Geographical Society with IBG.

Become a member and discover where geography can take you.

Join us
A view over a beach in Phuket, Thailand

Islands and beaches

This lesson looks at tourist development in the islands of Ko Phi Phi

The islands have been attractive to paradise seekers and film makers but were devastated by the 2004 tsunami. Students will learn how the islands have changed, the pressures on the islands and what the future may hold.

Key questions

Why is Thailand attractive to film-makers?

How has Ko Phi Phi changed over time?

What is the future for Ko Phi Phi?

Why is Thailand attractive to film-makers?

Dozens of films have used Thailand as a location. The availability of elephants, exotic jungle and beach settings, relatively low production costs, and a mature film industry that provides experienced crew members, have made Thailand an attractive location for films. In addition to providing work for Thai film crews and extras, films that use Thailand as a location have promoted Thailand as a tourist destination. However, over the years, the locations of some films have been criticized as being harmful to the environment. The island used to depict villain's hideout in The Man with the Golden Gun is now a major draw for tourism operators in Phuket's Phang Nga Bay. Environmentalists also protested the filming of The Beach, in which the film crew made alterations to the location that were viewed as damaging.

How has Ko Phi Phi changed over time?

Before the 2004 tsunami, Phi Phi Don (the larger of Ko Phi Phi's two main islands) had 3,500 residents - at least 500 worked in the tourism sector. Others were fishermen, or farmed coconuts and cashews. The original islanders, known locally as sea gypsies because of their nomadic past, depend on fishing for their livelihood. Visitor numbers to the islands exploded after parts of The Beach were filmed on Maya beach on Phi Phi Le to about 150,000 every year and 12 high standard resort hotels operated on the island.

Much of the area was a marine reserve but there were few building controls and litter was a major problem. Raw sewage was pumped into the sea, and electricity came from two diesel generators run by private companies. The water purification plant to recycle water was never used.

Ko Phi Phi was the second hardest hit area in Thailand by the tsunami. Two waves, three and five and a half metres in height, crashed into either side of the narrow strip of land between the beaches on Phi Phi Don, home to much of the tourist activity on the island. Nearly three-quarters of the buildings were destroyed and about 2,000 people died. All survivors of the tsunami were moved to temporary housing on the mainland. Most hotels and bungalows closest to Tong Sai and Lo Dalam beaches were reduced to rubble. Only three of the resort hotels escaped severe damage. The pier on Phi Phi Don for docking boats and ferries from the mainland was destroyed. Most of the trees on the islands survived the tsunami.

"For us, if there are any lessons to be learned from this dreadful disaster, it is to demonstrate how dependent some local communities are on tourism. The hope is that as tourist facilities are gradually rebuilt, this awareness will inspire the tourism industry to ensure that more of the benefits go to local people to help them in the reconstruction they so desperately need". Shirley Eber, Tourism Concern.

What is the future for Ko Phi Phi?

Since the tsunami devastated Ko Phi Phi in December 2004 there has been a mad rush to get tourism on the islands back on its feet. But after the destruction and tragedy of ruined lives, many were thinking that this could be a new, better start for Ko Phi Phi. With most of the tourist facilities destroyed, it was time to plan for a lasting - sustainable - future. In the first few months after the tsunami there were early warning signs that making money would take priority over planning the islands' long-term future. A rapid rebuilding programme got underway. Two international hotel chains were given the go-ahead to build luxury resorts on the Phi Phi Don as the Thai government looked to develop Ko Phi Phi as a different kind of tourist destination than before. The government's vision of a sustainable future for Ko Phi Phi focuses on fewer, high spending tourists in all-inclusive resorts backed by big business from outside. The government is also thinking about a ban on the rebuilding of all residents' houses along the beachfronts.


Joanne: "Friends I have already made in Thailand say that there is nowhere better than the two islands of Ko Phi Phi to chill out before I start my voluntary work, so here I am."

Making Movies

The sun kissed white sand beaches and the spectacular limestone cliffs on this stretch of Thailand's coastline are a popular location for movie makers as well as fun-seeking tourists.

What kind of movies would you make here?

How might movie-making change life on the islands? For better or worse?

Go to Wikipedia to find out more about why Thailand is a top choice for movie locations.

Main Activity

Tourism: the kiss of death?

For their honeymoon, Danny and Melissa are staying on Phi Phi Don, one of the two islands of Ko Phi Phi. They think they've entered paradise, but the paradise they are seeking is no secret - 400,000 visitors now flock to this tiny island every year.

Look at the four scenes of the same beaches on Phi Phi Don from the last 15 years in the document Ko Phi Phi images. The pictures are from 1992, 2000, 2005 and 2007.

If possible, print them off and label them with your ideas to answer:

  • What has happened to the island over time?

  • Are these changes natural or human?

  • Are they good or bad?

  • Who should take responsibility for the changes?


Like any small island, people on Phi Phi Don struggle to meet the needs of their visitors with the resources available, and to manage the waste their visitors produce.

For their honeymoon on Phi Phi Don, Danny and Melissa are staying in an air-conditioned room in a five star resort hotel. Meanwhile, Joanne is chilling out in a beach bungalow with a fan to keep her cool.

  • During a week on Phi Phi Don, what resources might Danny and Melissa use? What waste might they generate?

  • How might Joanne compare?

Think up five pieces of advice on how Danny, Melissa and Joanne can relieve the strain on Phi Phi's precious resources while they are staying on Phi Phi Don.

For more information read Ko Phi Phi: What future.

File nameFiles

File type



Paradise Lost Lesson 5 Ko Phi Phi Maps


23 KB

Paradise Lost Lesson 5 Ko Phi Phi Images


211 KB

Paradise Lost Lesson 5 Ko Phi Phi: What Future?


2 MB

Paradise Lost Lesson 5 Ko Phi Phi: What Future? (1)


230 KB

Download all files