Phi Phi is one of the few islands around that lives up to the gushing hype that pours from travel brochures - from a distance at least. It has all the requisites of a tropical island: lush vegetation, pristine sands, sparkling waters and more. Aerial shots of this gem, off Krabi in southern Thailand, depict bands of azure, white and green. Its amazing hour-glass shape and huge limestone cliffs make it stand out even against the beauty of the hundreds of other islands that dot the Andaman Sea. So it is little wonder that Hollywood has chosen it as the setting for its latest blockbuster. But in the process it has raised the ire of Thailand's small but noisy environmental movement which claims the film would cause irreparable damage to the island. It has also sparked a lively and widely publicised debate about the use of national treasures such as Phi Phi and other national parks for commercialisation and exploitation. It is a debate that has dragged on for weeks and finally led to a temporary halt in production by orders of the government's forestry department - the same department that originally gave the all-clear for the movie to be filmed on Phi Phi. The film is an adaptation of the 1996 novel by English writer Alex Garland called The Beach, which deals with adventures of back-packers in Thailand. It will begin shooting in January and star Titanic hero Leonardo DiCaprio. It is being produced by independent film-maker Andrew Macdonald in conjunction with 20th Century Fox. While, in the end, it is likely the environmentalists' activism will not stop the cameras from rolling, it has brought into focus the sorry condition of Phi Phi, whose magnificent allure over the years has been its downfall. Greed, unfettered development and environmental neglect has turned this once-extraordinary place into a semblance of paradise. No gem of nature has the ability to withstand the demands of the tourist trade, especially one this small. Lax attitudes towards development, litter collection and sewage have not helped. While bigger Thai islands such as Phuket, Samui, Samet and Chang can attempt to hide the mess created by the irresponsibility of those involved in tourism - including government authorities - because of their size, Phi Phi finds it difficult. Those glossy brochures that describe Phi Phi as wondrous to behold are not far off the mark - as long as it is beholden from a distance. As for being unspoiled that is another question. Phi Phi has turned from paradise into a day-trippers' diversion written into just about every package deal sold to tourists visiting Phuket or Krabi. Every day thousands of people overload this tiny island, and for most, the Phi Phi experience lasts only a couple of hours. The narrow isthmus that separates the two main beaches is a mess. Piles of black rubbish bags lie off paths. Much of the island's garbage is dumped offshore and much of that is washed back during high tide. Sewage is pumped directly into the waters surrounding the island and a good portion of the island's coral has been destroyed by the thousands of yachts that have laid anchor off the island over the years. It is a credit to this island's natural beauty, after all this degradation, that it still maintains any charm at all. And all this is happening in a national park. Under Thailand's National Park Act, stiff penalties apply to any changes that lead to deterioration of the environment through human tampering. Shooting of The Beach will last about a month on Phi Phi, then move to Khao Yai National Park in central Thailand. Bangkok's famous back-packer haven, Khao San Road, will also feature prominently. Much of Garland's novel is set on another Thai island of Samui, but according to Mr Macdonald, Phi Phi was chosen because of the clearness of the waters and its natural setting - it is more Hollywood's idea of a tropical paradise. And this is essentially what has got the environmentalists annoyed. A Hollywood tropical paradise must have palm-fringed beaches gently swaying in Andaman Sea breezes. Accordingly, 100 coconut trees are to be planted at Maya Bay, a relatively isolated spot on the island where the shooting will take place, and native grasses will be cleared from the beach to make way for a soccer match scene. The film-makers have promised to remove the coconut trees and replace the grass (which will be stored during the shoot) once the filming is finished, and have pledged that marine life would not be disturbed. They are paying four million baht (about HK$800,000) towards environmental improvements on the island and another five million baht deposit against any damage that may be caused. But that has not placated the environmentalists. They say the palm trees will not take root and the removal of the grass, even for a short period of time, will cause damage to the sand dunes. They also contend that authorities are selling out to the big bucks being offered by Hollywood. Of course money has had no small part to play in the original decision to allow filming on the island. Estimates of up to 500 million baht in foreign exchange will be gained from the filming through production, accommodation and labour costs. Sanya Kiawkhong, chairman of Krabi Chamber of Commerce, said shooting of the film would provide free worldwide promotion for the province and help bring in billions of baht in tourism income. Even the local coconut palm tree farmers are making a killing. Santa Pestonji, whose company Santa International Film Productions will co-ordinate filming in Thailand, said he priced coconut trees at 800 baht each in Krabi. Later, when the sellers learned the trees were to be used in the movie, the price increased to 4,000 baht. 'The sad truth is our country is governed by greed. That's why the government backs the big money of Hollywood against our own laws,' said Bangkok Post columnist Sanitsuda Ekachai, in one of the many commentaries in Thai newspapers condemning the government's decision to allow filming. Mr Macdonald says while his company realised Phi Phi was a national park, the fact that the island is open to development, to tourists, birds' nest concessions, yachts and longtail boats made him confident permission to film would be given. '[The island] is not closed to visitors like a wildlife park,' he says. Also, filming had been allowed there before.