Now that I’m fully ensconced back in London, it’s been an opportune time to reflect on some of the experiences I’ve had over the past year.
Of course, the last few months in Asia stand out most clearly in my mind. And in particular, a couple of experiences have left me considering the impact that I, and other tourists and travellers, had on the local communities and environments we visited.
A visit to Phang Nga Bay
The impact of tourism in Thailand feels particularly salient. It has built its fame on its diverse natural beauty and approach to life – from the jungles of Chang Mai to buzzing Bangkok and its beautiful beaches. It attracts tourists and travellers from all over the world.
During our last visit to Phuket we went on a boat trip with some friends around Phang Nga Bay. The area is a stunning National Park dotted with limestone islands that jut precariously out of the sea. Its location between Phuket and mainland southern Thailand make it a popular stop off point for tourist.
The first place we stopped on this trip was Koh Panyee, a small fisherman village predominantly built on stilts. The history of the village itself is interesting. Originally settled by nomadic Malay fishermen in the 18th century, it was built on stilts due to laws restricting the ownership of land solely to Thai nationals. Its population is predominantly Muslim, and one of the first main structures built on the land was its gold-domed Mosque. When you arrive there are a number of restaurants catering to the boat loads of people that arrive everyday. Wandering through the narrow alleyways you come across a plethora of stalls selling pearl jewellery and the usual bits of travel paraphernalia.
The social impact: A visit to a school
We were taken to see the school and its floating football pitch – a major attraction which was built by the Thai government for the benefit of the local school. This is where the trip took a turn. When we arrived we met children, instead of in their lessons, trying to sell us knick-knacks to “fund their education.” Other tourists tramped through the school with their Go-Pros filming children in their classrooms during nap time.
The whole situation made me feel uncomfortable. It was disruptive to the children and their education. I wondered what impact growing up somewhere people just came to look at you would have – like a zoo. In the UK, we would not accept tourists en masse showing up to our children’s school every day and filming them.
I understand that tourism has been welcomed to the island and it will have certainly brought opportunities to earn a living that otherwise would have been lacking. But the visit to the school and the lack of protections afforded to the children in the name of tourism crossed a line of acceptability. It felt exploitative.
The environmental impact: Then there was James Bond Island…
The other main highlight of trip was a visit to James Bond Island, where scenes from Man with the Golden Gun were filmed. We didn’t even get off the boat here. While our guide was trying to entice us with promises of ice cream and coconuts, there were so many people crammed on to the small island that it didn’t feel worth it.
Over exploitation of areas of natural beauty in Thailand is a familiar story. It has become so bad in some places that the government has even gone so far as to close some of its famous landmarks – including the famous “Beach” near Koh Phi Phi popularised by the 2000 film of the same name.
The sheer numbers…
Finally, a major consideration when organising this trip was beating the Chinese tourists.
Chinese tourism is having a major impact on countries in South East Asia. And in many ways it is fundamentally altering the industry as a whole. There is substantial hostility towards it both from host communities and the Western traveller community. Both complain of the noise, size and boisterousness of these groups. More specifically, the former complain of the lack of local economic benefit Chinese tourists bring, and more specifically, in the world of one Cambodia taxi driver “the fighting, the rubbish and the mafia.” The latter complain that the size of these groups ruin their enjoyment of a place and will often look condescendingly at the large organised nature of these tours.
The phenomena of Chinese tourism deserves a post in itself. The flip side of the above views is that Chinese with the capital to see the world and now getting out and doing it. Tour groups of their size create economies of scale and allow people who don’t speak English to travel comfortably. But this point is included here to demonstrate that more people are travelling and more want to see the world. This means that the potential of our collective impact – both positive and negative – is greater.
So what can you do?
I’m not saying don’t travel. Seeing the world is a phenomenally enlightening experience. Not to mention relaxing. Tourism undoubtedly can have a positive impact on local communities and countries – in fact, it is a specific economic development strategy and one of the biggest economic sectors in the world. But the positive impacts are far from inevitable.
I’m hearing more and more sad stories about the negative impact of tourism. The Beach is closed. Halong Bay is overly polluted. In traditional neighbourhoods around the world like Gracia in Barcelona, Principe Real in Lisbon and Bukchon Hanok Village in Seoul there is a burgeoning backlash against tourism.
Whether tourism has a positive impact or not comes down to choices – your choices. And it comes down to whether you to educate yourself about your options.
Despite the negative examples I’ve cited above, I’ve seen plenty of positive examples. I’ve been impressed with communities, restaurants, hotels and tour operators who have gone out of their way to give back to the local community, educate tourists and travellers and reduce their environmental impact. Over the next couple of months I’d like to write more about these positive examples as a way of sharing what I’ve see and educating myself.
So if you are interested in ethical consumption in other areas of your life, travel shouldn’t be any different.