Recently, there has been a huge amount of discussion on the impact of COVID-19 on tourism. Today, The Guardian published a piece on how Thailand’s islands have been affected, given their huge reliance on tourism. “Deserted beaches, empty bars: Covid-19 devastates Thailand’s tourist islands” is the headline.
I have spent a number of years in Thailand, and worked in travel, seeing how development has changed places. But, as my earliest time in the Kingdom was 2004, to go back further I have to look at old guidebooks. I have been collecting Lonely Planets from the 1980s and fascinated by how places used to be. Well-known Thai islands such as Koh Samui are in normal times packed out with tourists filling the thousands of hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, bars, tourist shops etc. But such islands only a few decades ago were sparsely populated, with small fishing and farming communities that were relatively cut-off from the mainland. When I read about these places, I wish I was able to experience them before all the other tourists and development arrived, but at the same time mindful that any arrival in any destination furthers scope for development.
Today, the majority of workers on Koh Samui are not Samui natives – an island that prides itself on its unique island culture derived from its geographical separation from the mainland – but have moved there from other parts of Thailand or neighbouring countries such as Myanmar, to work in one of the many roles created by the influx of tourists. But now, many of those not from Samui have returned to their hometowns as work has dried up. Beaches are reportedly relatively empty, and nature is having some time to breath, as foreigners are all but barred from entering the country.
Samui’s environmental issues are well-documented. The huge numbers of hotels that have been constructed over the last two decades has overwhelmed the island’s delicate ecosystem. Some would say Samui’s downfall was the building of the airport. This enabled vast numbers of tourists to fly in daily – far more than could go in by ferry. Many people pray that the airport on neighbouring Koh Pha Ngan will not be completed – so far the lack of an airport the only thing stopping the smaller island from reaching the same kind of levels of over-development seen on its big sister Koh Samui. But for all those that oppose its building, there are many out there with very much to gain financially should it be built.
The Guardian writes of lack of tourists causing devastation on Thai islands. Certainly in terms of job losses, this is the case. And I agree, it is awful for anyone who has lost their job and can no longer feed their families or themselves. But if we are talking about the islands themselves, the environment, it is easy to argue that devastation on many islands has been caused not by a break in tourism, but by massive over-tourism building up over the years. And now, the islands themselves, have time to recuperate from this, time to breath. Nature is allowed some time to heal.
A few weeks back, I read an interesting piece in USA Today on the reimagination of tourism in Venice: a move to a more sustainable and manageable model, with the intention of returning it to the Venice of roughly two decades ago. “For years, Venice has faced an almost existential crisis, as the unbridled success of its tourism industry threatened to ruin the things that have drawn visitors for centuries.” At a time when flights are cheap and numerous, and the internet brings overnight fame to places that were otherwise relatively unknown, there are thousands of cities, towns and villages around the world that are calling out for help as they buckle under the weight of smart-phone toting tourists in their masses.
Issues relating to overtourism are familiar to most. From those living in the city full of holiday lets, meaning they can barely afford to rent or buy in, to the tourist who travels somewhere for an authentic experience, only to find locals outnumbered by tourists, or that famous beauty spot no longer so beautiful when inundated by thousands of day-trippers. The latter seemingly trivial, but not so when you consider it an indication of how a destination’s attractiveness in the modern age has the ability to ruin itself.
In the United Kingdom, a small number of ‘holy days’ granted to workers riding the wave of industry later became ‘holidays’ but it wasn’t until the 20th century that an extended holiday of a week or more became common practice or a requirement. That holiday was typically spent within borders at one of the many seaside resort towns that were served well by the railway network. Those lucky enough to have access to a motorcar may have gone further afield to more remote areas. Later on in the 20th century with the rise of private car ownership, tourism became increasingly widespread throughout the country, which coincided with the increase in holiday allowance.
During the 1970s, package holidays to mainland Europe increased in popularity, and international travel became more accessible to the wider public. British weather is famously unreliable, this undoubtedly a motivation for so many to move their holidays to southern Europe. Taking the car over the English Channel grew in popularity, but quickly began to loose out to the speed and glamour of taking a flight.
As more boarded flights, airline competition increased and fares became cheaper. Today, budget airlines offer such low prices that not only is it often cheaper than taking the car and ferry, or the train, but all things considered, it is often cheaper for Brits to jump on a plane to a European city than take a break in a British town.
For decades now in the so-called developed economies, people have expected nice holidays. Whether holidaying domestically or abroad, a long holiday is for most, expected.
The new wealth in nations such as China with their growing middle classes, and growing passport ownership has meant an international explosion in overseas travel. Just as France or Spain is for the British, for many Chinese people, Thailand is the first overseas destination to visit.
However, this new money is not matched by the generous holiday allowance found in countries such as the UK. Most Chinese workers can’t travel outside of the two national holiday weeks in spring and autumn, ultimately meaning a crowded trip away. Partly due to language barriers, many Chinese people prefer to travel on group tours, which are often large and operate as zero-dollar tours. All-inclusive, visiting Chinese-owned businesses, often paying via Chinese apps, meaning very little money actually stays within the local economy. And due to the size of the groups, the numbers of groups travelling at the same time during the two week-long holidays, and that in each country only a limited number of places are promoted by tour operators, destinations can be totally overwhelmed. In Thailand this might be Chang Mai, Pattaya, Phuket, or Koh Phi Phi. A large island such as Phuket might be able to cope, just, but can the small strips of sand and coral that make up the Phi Phi Islands deal with thousands of daily visitors? We know the answer. We see similar overtourism on Mediterranean islands, sought after by the vast numbers of northern Europeans that fly down to them each year for clear turquoise seas and guaranteed sun.
For many destinations having to deal with overtourism, there has been a perfect storm – a combination of the rise of cheap flights operated by budget airlines such as Easy Jet in Europe and Air Asia in Asia, and the internet. Social media hypes up destinations like no guidebook could ever do, compelling people from all around the world to flock to a single beach, or rock, or viewpoint for that selfie. This is even seen in England with the beach adjacent to Durdle Door on the south coast as a good example. Owing to recent internet fame of the dramatic rock formation, it has become disproportionately busy and even more worryingly so during the pandemic.
But, where tourists have not been permitted to travel, the crisis has offered something. It has given cities, towns, villages, forests, mountains, beaches, islands, time and space to breath again – flora and fauna time to rejuvenate, citizens room to enjoy their own towns without being overrun by visitors. We shouldn’t have needed such a situation to give nature time to breath, to allow people to enjoy their own spaces. But, we did. We’re human. Of course we did.
So what do we do next?
As some will know from my writings, I live for travel, and have spent a large proportion of my working life in travel. I see the way that travel breaks down borders, opens people’s minds to different cultures, and ultimately creates a more understanding world. I see the creation of jobs and wealth in countries that had been made poor through war and corruption.
But I also see the negative aspects of travel, something that many in the travel industry are blind to, unless it helps them drive their turnover. I see this all too much. Now is a time for those people to open their eyes and see what can be done to better the world.
Those that have the power to regulate building in delicate ecosystems need to act, need to use legislation to restrict tourism in certain areas, and better redistribute tourism so one destination is not disproportionately busy. Governments need to take their eggs out of one basket, and stop economies relying so heavily on tourism. Those that have the power and influence in the travel industry need to act, need to think about what and where they promote. Those that enjoy travel, build their lives around travel like I do, need to act and need to think about how, when, and where they travel.
20 years ago, many places like Koh Samui received just a fraction of tourists that they did pre-pandemic. Economies were much less reliant on tourism. Environmentally, places were much better off. As a destination, Samui was a more interesting, authentic place. If levels of tourism around the world dropped dramatically, back towards the kind of levels we saw two decades ago, countries would take hits to their economies, but going forward, they would become less reliant on tourism and seek to generate income through other means. It would be tough at first, and perhaps unrealistic for places like Koh Samui which would in the end have thousands of empty hotel beds, but something needs to be done. If tourism can’t be scaled down in places that have already so much infrastructure, at the least in the case of Thailand, other islands much be prevented from ending up the same way. The Thai government has in the past year very commendably taken the decision to close off Phi Phi Ley, an island with national park status that’s been badly affected by overtourism. But when this reopens, visitor numbers should not be allowed to return to the levels prior to closure. I first went to this island in 2004 when there were just a handful of others there on traditional longtail boats from neighbouring Phi Phi Don. Pre-closure, the tiny island was visited daily by hundreds of speedboats ferrying thousands of people from Phuket, 46 kms away. Totally unsustainable.
The Covid-19 crisis has given governments that have the power to regulate, the tourism industry that have the power to promote or not promote, and travellers that have the power of choice, time to step back, take a breath, and think about what could be done better. As a population, we don’t need to stop travelling, we just need to travel less. We certainly need to fly less. We need to think about how and where we travel. We have choice, we should use it.
Not only those that directly endure the perils of mass-tourism, but the entire world’s population, should hope that this vital opportunity to reflect and change is not wasted.
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