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By Alison Bevege

SYDNEY (Reuters) - The French Pacific territory of New Caledonia on Tuesday imposed restrictions on tourists and fishing boats accessing its coral reefs in an effort to protect the underwater ecosystem and create a sanctuary for hump-back whales and other marine life.

The archipelago is enacting similar measures to those taken in visitor hot spots such as Boracay in the Philippines and Maya Bay in Thailand, which aim to balance tourism and the protection of ecosystems threatened by warming seas and economic activity.

The New Caledonian government issued regulations that ban fishing and limit tourist boats in important coral areas within its huge marine area, known as the Natural Park of the Coral Sea.

The rules, covering an area that includes about one-third of the world's undisturbed coral reefs, will be enforced with the help of French naval surveillance from sea, air and space.

"These important texts ... mark a new step for the future of the park," the government said in a release, referring to the rules.

Like many Pacific islands, New Caledonia, with a population of just 260,000, controls vast swathes of resource-rich ocean.

The ban will cover coral reefs that make up about 2 percent of the territory's 1.3 million sq km (501,933 square miles) Natural Park, which is also a UNESCO world heritage site.

The pristine areas are a haven for hump-back whales, sea birds and turtles and contain an estimated 1,700 species of fish and 473 different types of coral, according to non-profit organisation Pew Charitable Trusts.

The reefs will now be harder to access for the roughly 600,000 tourists who visit New Caledonia each year, generating one of its main income streams. Small, eco-tours can still apply for permits to access the restricted areas.

Other nations are grappling with the competing interests of the tourism and fishing industries and obligations to protect marine life.

Australia is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into protecting the Great Barrier Reef, which is facing various threats including poor water quality due to agricultural runoff, climate change, illegal fishing and coastal development.

(Reporting by Alison Bevege in SYDNEY; additional reporting by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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Reuters