April 10, 2018

Closing off Idyllic Beaches to Mass Tourism can Help Save Them

Closing off Idyllic Beaches to Mass Tourism can Help Save Them

A throng of tourists on Maya Beach on Thailand's Phi Phi island. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Tourism is a vital part of economies in Southeast Asia, but much of tourism across the region comes with considerable costs to the environment. Popular destinations like beaches continue to be despoiled by the relentless swarm of tourists. Yet local authorities are often reluctant to limit mass tourism to such areas with their fragile ecosystems for fear of losing plenty of tourist dollars and hurting local economies.

That said, several popular tourist destinations in the region are becoming off-limits to tourists, if only temporarily. World-renowned beaches in Thailand and the Philippines are being closed off to visitors in an effort to allow their fragile ecosystems to recover in peace.

A sandy beach is strewn with plastic debris that has washed up on it. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Tourists are now barred from visiting Maya Bay on Phi Phi Island, which featured in the 1999 Hollywood blockbuster “The Beach,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio. On average some 4,000 tourists visit the famed beach in the Andaman Sea: the visitors arrive in around 200 longtail and speed boats.

Endless mass tourism has wreaked destruction on the beach’s marine life, decimating local corals and driving away numerous fish species. By closing the beach to visitors for a few months, Thai authorities hope to allow the local environment to begin to heal itself.

“Overworked and tired, all the beauty of the beach is gone. We need a timeout for the beach,” Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a Thai marine scientist, has been quoted as explaining. “If you ask me if it is too late to save our islands, the answer is no,” he added. “But if we don’t do something today, it will be too late.”

In a similar move, Philippine authorities are closing down Boracay, a small picturesque island popular with foreign tourists. The island will be closed off to tourism for six months. Last year 2 million tourists visited the island, which is famed for its white-sand beaches. They brought in more than $1 billion in the process, a vast sum of money in the Philippines. Needless to say, the closure will affect many of the 500 tourism-related businesses on Boracay. “Most of the roughly 40,000 residents of the four-square-mile island are dependent on tourism,” the New York Times notes.

Those numbers alone are telling: so many people on such a small island, and that’s without the influx of tourists. “The race for tourist dollars fueled rapid development,” the paper explains. “Bamboo huts and modest, wood-framed inns gave way to modern hotels, primarily along the four-mile-long White Beach on the island’s western side. A mall features American chains like Starbucks, KFC and McDonald’s, and Caticlan Airport, 15 minutes away by ferry, recently expanded to handle the flow of tourists.”

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Illegal Dumping in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands. Photo Credit Storm Crypt @flickr

The government has promised to give financial aid to the worst-affected residents, but many locals are upset at the loss of their income from tourism, and understandably so. Their only source of revenue is from tourism and they will now have to go without that for months.

Still, balancing economic and environmental considerations often entails making painful sacrifices as we seek to try and save beleaguered natural wonders in countries like Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia.

Unless we limit the numbers of tourists to some popular tourist destinations, these natural wonders are unlikely to be worth their designations as “idyllic” much longer. Many of them are already little more than degraded eyesores with garbage-strewn footpaths and crowded streets having taken the place of once thriving natural havens teeming with wildlife and marine life.

Ironically, many people, inspired by images of unspoiled paradise on earth as they are, flock to such destinations en masse only to find overcrowded sites instead. In another bit of irony, with their own presence they, too, contribute to that same overcrowding.

Sites in Malaysia, too, have been suffering from the adverse effects of mass tourism. Take the Cameron Highlands, which are justifiably world-famous for their natural beauty. Much of the local environment has become severely degraded, partly as a result of pell-mell development and of mass tourism. Paths in forests have been badly contaminated by litter and fragile plants have been trampled upon by wayward visitors.

Most of the local rivers have, meanwhile, been polluted to varying degrees. Three local rivers have been polluted so badly that they have turned into open sewers with resident aquatic species driven extinct in them. “If the rivers in Cameron Highlands could talk, [they] would most probably say to human beings: ‘Don’t kill me’,” a local environmentalist noted poignantly.

Natural environments often have to be saved from the exact same threat: us. Closing scenic biodiversity hotspots to mass tourism, even if periodically and temporarily, is one of the solutions that we have at our disposal in trying to save them, or at least what’s left of them.

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