Managing overtourism in Asia
by Kathy Xu
Tourism is a booming industry and Asia with its scenic spots and exotic allure is a favourite for travellers. But in recent years, concerns that excessive tourism may be the demise of Southeast Asia’s natural wonders have risen.
How will these countries balance between the pursuit of economic growth and the need for environmental protection?
The economic benefits of tourism are undeniable. As of 2018, the travel and tourism sector forms about 10.4 percent of the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and every one in ten jobs in the world are from this industry.
Developing nations all around the globe have turned to tourism as a key source of income. For many Asian countries, its environmental beauty is also its greatest resource. Countries such as Maldives, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines attract millions of tourists to its beautiful islands and beaches.
But this also means that these biologically rich and pristine environments are vulnerable to the negative impacts of overtourism.
Overtourism occurs when there is simply too many visitors to a single destination. This may result in a negative influence on the local quality of life, or that of the travellers' experiences. This overcrowding of tourists may lead to conflict with the locals in cultural, environmental, and economic aspects.
While Europe is still the most visited region in the world, Asia has been the fastest growing for international arrivals since 2005, averaging around six percent growth each year. Since the 1990s, it is the Southeast Asian countries of Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar that have seen the greatest increase in tourists, while Thailand was among the top ten most visited countries in the world in 2017. It is projected that Asia will have the largest volume of international visitor arrivals (IVAs) by 2022.
Tourism has undoubtedly helped fuel job creation for many local communities in Asia. It has helped reduce the gap between the rich and poor countries in Southeast Asia. Tourists usually flow from more developed to less developed countries, and tourist dollars aid in reducing poverty of local communities. But this comes at a price. Overcrowding, traffic congestion, poor trash management, are merely some of the many perils of unmanaged tourism. However, more severe consequences of tourism include biodiversity loss, wildlife extinction, community displacement, and pollution resulting from increased vehicular and human traffic.
The rise of social media in the last decade has drastically changed the landscape of many industries, including tourism. Social media seems to be the biggest driver of increased pressure on nature sites. The tag #travel alone on Instagram has 421 million public posts. "Instagrammability" — a phrase used to describe whether a location is beautiful enough to be photographed and shared on Instagram— has become the biggest factor for millennials in selecting their travel destinations. It is little wonder they flock to destinations that will get them the most followers, likes, and comments.
How has this affected sites in Southeast Asia especially since island life and beautiful beaches are the region's biggest draws? In Boracay, an iconic island that lies just off the Northwestern tip of Panay Island, the Philippines, overtourism and Instagram influencers' posts have wreaked havoc. Known for its sandy white beaches and breathtaking landscapes, it attracted two million tourists in 2017 alone. The island has built many hotels and resorts to meet the growing tourist needs, but this is not paired with sufficient infrastructural development. Due to a lack of proper treatment of sewage and wastewater on the island, the waters around Boracay started to smell foul and developed algal blooms.
In many Asian countries, balancing the need for economic development and the preservation of both natural and built environments is a challenge. In essence, achieving sustainable tourism has been difficult, and not always successful.
In Cambodia, dolphin populations of the Tonle Sap Lake experienced a significant loss as they were killed for their oil during the Indochina Wars. When the dolphin populations naturally recovered, the locals saw an opportunity for business, and ran land-based dolphin watching tours in the early 1990s. This picked up in popularity, and significantly more locals joined the business and ran their own tours. In addition, the tourists were also disturbing the dolphins as there were no regulations in place to limit their interaction with the dolphins. This inevitably led to a decline in the dolphin population.
Eventually, the Cambodian government stepped in hoping to manage the tour operators and tourists numbers. However, the government failed to implement a fair rotation system, and this simply allowed the locals to compete among themselves for business. Because of inept government management, NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) had to step in by hiring local villagers to be river guards, patrolling and protecting the dolphin habitat areas. While this helped to recover the dolphin populations a little, it did not address the government’s ineffectiveness in managing dolphin tourism fairly and ensuring equitable income for the local community.
However, government intervention when applied appropriately can be incredibly effective. For Boracay, the Philippines president ordered the closure of the island for six months from April 2018, to reverse the damage. When it reopened, daily tourist arrival numbers was capped at 6,000 while the total number of people staying on the island at any one time could not exceed 19,000. Single-use plastics were also banned on the island.
Likewise in Thailand's Maya Bay, which rose to fame thanks to the movie, The Beach in 2000, is another place in Southeast Asia that has suffered from overtourism. With 5,000 tourists moving about and swimming in its beaches every day, the corals started to die, and the whole marine ecosystem was on the brink of collapse. The Thai government then intervened and called for Maya Bay to be closed to tourism from 2018 until mid-2021. Projects for coral propagation commenced. When it reopens again, the daily tourist numbers allowed would be capped at 2,400 per day. This would hopefully give the marine ecosystems a chance to be restored.
Island closure is just one of many solutions in combating overtourism. In Bhutan, a tax is imposed to manage and ensure sustainable tourism. In order to visit Bhutan, tourists have to commit to paying a mandatory flat fee of between USD200 to USD250 first, depending on the season. Bhutan imposes the highest travel tax in the world, but this comes with good quality accommodation and guides. This ensures that tourists are given a valuable and meaningful experience, while also maintaining a low impact on the culture and landscape of the country. Bhutan’s success with the tourism tax has inspired other countries to follow suit.
Another feasible solution to combating overtourism is through ground-up initiatives However, this requires the active involvement of various stakeholders. In Donsol, Philippines, snorkelling with whale sharks is a popular activity. Locally-run conservation efforts and research undergirds sustainable tourism in this instance. The Large Marine Vertebrates Institute (LAMAVE) is a local-run conservation group based in the Philippines. They work with other international NGOs and the local fishermen to help control the whale shark interactions with strict regulations. These regulations include limiting the tourists’ distance from the sharks, and limiting the number of tourist boats per each shark. Lamave also carries out research on the whale sharks through photo identification tracking to better understand the local population for tourism management purposes.
Given that Southeast Asia is highly dependent on tourism as an economic driver, perhaps there is a need to market tourism in Southeast Asia responsibly such that it reflects research and is result-driven. This can ensure that the sector is run with consideration against the stresses of overtourism and of the negative effects on local population, without compromising meeting economic needs.
For all the work done to mitigate the problems of overtourism, the biggest hindrance remains the lack of stakeholder coordination. For sustainable tourism, sufficient support from local governments, such as good infrastructure, strict regulations and adequate enforcement is required. Otherwise, the local community, both natural and built environments, will not be able to stem the dangers of overtourism. Consequently, when well managed, tourism can perhaps be a powerful yet responsible economic driver for local communities in Southeast Asia.
Kathy used to write marine and environmental stories at Kontinentalist. She was history-trained but does other things now instead, like running an ecotourism shark conservation business, The Dorsal Effect. When free, she enjoys being in the ocean, trying to spot some sharks or just home cuddling with her cavvie, Danea.