Mass tourism in Southeast Asia
First published 28th March, 2008
USA Today ran a story recently lamenting the state of affairs in some of the region's better known "must sees". The story picks out Luang Prabang, Pai and Siem Reap as cases in point, but there are many others to choose from -- Vang Vieng, Hoi An, Sapa or just about any island in Thailand. Unfortunately the author couldn't get much past his own treasured memories of Luang Prabang back in '74, but one doesn't need to have been travelling back then to have noticed huge changes in Asian backpacking destinations -- why?
It's a common, and a selfish, refrain; "it was so much better back then -- before everyone else found out about it." It seems many want to experience what Gray describes as "a cohesive, authentic, living community" but they certainly don't want to share it -- certainly not with 50 tour buses a day. But who is to blame?
The author brings out popular whipping boy, ex-Lonely Planet author Joe Cummings, for particular treatment -- dreaming of condemning Joe "to eating nothing but banana pancakes and lugging a 500-pound backpack through all eternity". But, really, he's missing the mark -- Joe was just the messenger.
Who he should be lambasting are the authorities who stand by while the transformation takes place. Be it foreigners buying or leasing the traditional buildings, turfing out local charm for lattes and WiFi; or high-impact Asian mass tourism with their tour buses and cookie-cutter hotels along Siem Reap's Airport Road.
The story quotes former UNESCO expert, Francis Engelmann, as saying: "We have saved Luang Prabang's buildings, but we have lost its soul." While this is probably very true, he nevertheless still lives there.
You could argue that without the interest of the heritage community, more of Luang Prabang's (or Hoi An's) lovely buildings may have seen the wrecking ball, but that shouldn't mean that the vast majority of local residences become shops, cafes and restaurants, that locals choose not to live in town anymore and that wats close down because the new "locals" don't support the monastery in the same way.
Moon author Carl Parkes (from whom I picked up the USA Today story) says: "It's the author of this article who should examine his attitude and opinions, and not the travel writers such as myself and Joe Cummings, who didn't 'spoil' these untouched paradises, and don't regret that once impoverished regions are now enjoying the benefits of cash flow and tourism. Luang Prabang and Pai are still beautiful places, and Siem Reap hasn't been ruined, just changing."
The issue is that while these "impoverished regions" are undeniably enjoying some benefits, much of the financial benefits often end up elsewhere -- be they in the pocket of a French cafe owner in Luang Prabang, a Bangkokian running a guesthouse in Pai or a South Korean conglomerate building another dull hotel in Siem Reap.
But there's another group that could be admonished besides the government and regulatory officials -- the tourists themselves. Everyone has a story of ugly tourism. For me it was spotting a female tourist wearing only a g-string as she walked down the main "road" of the Muslim fishing village on Ko Jum. I'm sure you've heard (or seen) worse.
Joe Cummings, in edition upon edition, harped on about how important it is for tourists to conduct themselves in a sensitive manner -- yet a significant portion of his readership seemed to never have got the memo. Be it topless or nude bathing on Thailand's beaches, skimpy clothes in Lao and Vietnamese villages or cameras poking into Cambodian monastic buildings -- way too many readers slavishly followed their guide's advice on where to stay, eat and drink, but never bother with the fine print. Is it any surprise that the locals pack up and move out when day in, day out their streetside breakfast becomes a photo shoot?
Unfortunately tourism is a responsive business rather than a responsible one, and those who do best are generally the ones who give the punters what they want -- be it internet access on Ko Lipe, iPod downloads in Siem Reap or Friends cafes in Vang Vieng. These businesses are often the most jarring to the locals' sensibilities but it's too often where the punters float. Success leads to imitation and before you know it, Pai has been transformed from a charming small Thai town to a melange of bars, travel agents, cafes and, yes, chocolate banana pancake outfits -- something I'd never heard of till I got to Thailand.
It's all about balance. Places need to be developed with more consideration for local sensibilities -- and, as the mistakes in Luang Prabang illustrate, it helps a lot if the locals can be enticed to remain living where they have for generations. This could be greatly assisted by tourists behaving better, reading the small print in their guidebooks and trying to tread lightly.
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