Mass tourism in Southeast Asia

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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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About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton and he spends most of his time in Bali, Indonesia.


Read 4 comment(s)

  • This kind of saturation is more than a 3rd world phenomenon. Take Ireland, for example. It has a population of 3 million but is visited by 4 million tourists every year. Why?

    Ireland has some interesting historic sites and a few breath-taking landscapes, but most are there to gawk at the Irish drinking pints of Guinness and doing other things that Irish people do. But nobody, or very few, would say Ireland is spoilt.

    Posted by Iain on 30th June, 2009

  • A thoughtful piece, thank you.

    I have traveled the world for the past 20 years -- mostly Asia, Australia and Europe with some African visits. For what it's worth, I've found that despite seemingly disparate cultural situations, there is a univrsal sameness or commonality -- parents want the best for for their children ... mothers worry about household matters while fathers are concerned more with food, shelter and clothing issues. Moreover, if you smile at a stranger, it's an odds on bet that he/she will smile back.

    Although occasionally an ignorance of local custom causes difficulty, the tourists I have encountered for the most part seem to want to deport themselves with propriety.

    This leads me to believe there is a "bell curve" for both those visited and those visiting. Some will succeed with remarkable propriety at being hosts or guests ... the vast majority will be mostly successful and some will, of course, fail miserably (see your thong comment above.

    Articles as yours do help to make us think about our behavior. Moreover, it's my belief that as our world becomes smaller and smaller .. the need for understanding and respectful relationships with others grows proportionately.

    Good manners is perhaps the first step in that direction.

    Posted by Paul Bures on 3rd July, 2009

  • I think Ireland would be a fairly unique example. The idea of Ireland was created in the 19th century by the gaelic league after most of culture was forgotten/beat out of the people. Cromwell did a good job of that. Youve got a small core of "real irishmen" and women who speak irish play gaelic football drink guinness play trad and claim famous 'ra members as ancestors. then youve got modern ireland which has european and american influence on our culture. then in-between youve got the tourist industry.it's like a venn diagram. they all overlap in "drinking" with the real irish fiddling with bodhrans and hailing james kavanagh to the rafters in their other time. While the tourist spend the other time declaiming how desolote it is and fuming over outrageous prices for goods/services that are of a better standard at home while the other irish people watch in envy how gracefully the real irish people conduct themselves in a manner passed down through generations and altogether the most wholesome existence a being upon this blessed island could hope to achieve. They all meet when they drink. It's not pretty, nor is it noteworthy.

    Posted by paddy on 18th October, 2009

  • People like to visit Ireland because it is a beautiful island, despite the weather, and the people are lovely and sing a lot. I would hardly think that watching us drink our Guinness is something to travel for. I live in Bangkok and drink Guinness, which is pretty good, I have to say, and I doubt I attract too many tourists. I'm disappointed in my people for signing our lives away with the Lisbon treaty. Europe is finished and Ireland is dead to me now.

    Posted by Sean Casey on 18th October, 2009

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