Covid has given Southeast Asia a break from overtourism. Now what?


BANGKOK — Beaches full of bathers. Coves crowded with boats and divers. Trails again occupied by hikers and their porters.

More than two years after the coronavirus pandemic brought international travel to a halt, most countries in Southeast Asia have reopened their borders with minimal requirements for vaccinated travellers. Millions of people arrived over the summer, fueled by a pent-up wanderlust. The return of these tourists is a relief for an economically battered region, but it has its own costs.

While the pandemic has crippled Southeast Asia’s $393 billion tourism industry and cut millions of jobs, it has also allowed many of its natural landscapes and heritage sites to recover from years trampling and pollution. Today, some government officials and community leaders oppose a return to unbridled tourism that scientists have warned for years is causing irreparable damage to the environment. At the same time, those dependent on tourism revenue are desperate to welcome back visitors, as many as possible.

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“The industry is in a state of flux right now,” said Liz Ortiguera, chief executive of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, a nonprofit that advocates for sustainable travel. A growing number of governments and businesses are asking for ways to make tourism less destructive, she said, but as the pandemic wanes, a revival of environmentally damaging mass tourism is “An evidence”.

A month after Thailand closed its borders in 2020, a herd of dugongs – among the world’s most endangered marine mammals – have been seen floating serenely in the shallow waters off the country’s southern coast. Leatherback turtles have taken the place of tourists in Phuket, nesting on beaches at rates that have shocked local scientists.

“The pandemic has been a great opportunity, in a way, to show what happens when humans are able to give nature a break,” said Varawut Silpa-archa, Thailand’s Minister of Natural Resources and Environment. , at the Washington Post.

In 2020, Thailand closed its 155 natural parks to visitors for the very first time. While they were reopened in July, Silpa-archa ordered every park closed for at least a month every year. He also banned single-use plastics from parks and said he “wouldn’t hesitate” to shut down a long-term destination if tourists cause havoc. He cares little, he added, about potential corporate opposition.

“To be frank, I really don’t care if they agree,” Silpa-archa said. “My job is to preserve nature for our future generations.”

Not all attempts in the region to regulate tourism have been successful. In June, Indonesian officials faced local opposition after proposing that visitors to the ancient Borobodur temple in Java be limited to 15 at a time and that tickets for foreigners be increased from $25 to $100 for fund conservation. When the government announced plans to raise ticket prices for Komodo National Park in East Nusa Tenggara, hundreds of tourism workers went on strike. Price increases for both slots are now suspended.

“The challenge,” said Steven Schipani, a tourism industry specialist at the Asian Development Bank, “is that there are so many sunk investments.”

The number of annual tourist arrivals to Southeast Asia doubled from 2010 to 2019, peaking just before the pandemic at 137 million. This growth was expected to continue at least until 2030, largely due to a burgeoning regional middle class. In Southeast Asia, businesses and government agencies have made significant investments to prepare for and take advantage of these visitors. Much of that infrastructure — airports, hotels, sewage systems — is still in place, Schipani said.

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“There is capacity for 140 million people,” he noted. And there is “tremendous pressure” to ensure capacity is filled.

In 2018, then-Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte shut down the white-sand island of Boracay for six months, saying overtourism had turned it into a “sink”. Since reopening, the island has kept some sustainability measures in place, although they are currently being tested. Over the Easter weekend in April, Boracay repeatedly exceeded its daily visitor cap, authorities said.

Nowie Potenciano, 44, runs several restaurants and a boutique hotel on the island. Returning tourists to Boracay in recent months have literally been “hungry” for new experiences, he said, and many have ordered more food than they could have had in the past. He’s glad they’re back but doesn’t think things can get back to “business as usual” after the pandemic.

“It’s something we’re all figuring out,” Potenciano said. “How to maintain the volume of visitors without upsetting the fragile balance of the whole island?

In 2019, nearly 40 million tourists visited Thailand, and many spent time along its dazzling south coast. Research shows that between 2017 and 2019, at least two places in the south – Patong Beach and Maya Bay – regularly exceeded their “carrying capacity”, which refers to the number of people a place can reasonably accommodate without damaging the environment or the local community.

Somyot Sarapong, who works for an ecotourism agency in Bangkok, lived and worked on the Phi Phi Islands in the 1990s but left in 2003 when outside developers began erecting large concrete hotels on the seafront. sea ​​which have replaced the locally managed complexes. When Sarapong, 56, returned in 2019 to visit friends, he no longer recognized the place he considered a “slice of paradise”. The brightly colored fish, once so abundant, had become difficult to spot.

Sarapong made another trip to the islands earlier this year before Thailand reopened its borders to international visitors. As he swam in the sea, he saw a swarm of blacktip reef sharks, which had become increasingly rare around the islands before the pandemic.

“It gave me the feeling of my first day in Phi Phi,” Sarapong said.

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Sarapong wants to see the government do more to prevent overtourism, although some sustainability experts doubt officials are doing the needful.

Thailand is renowned for its hospitality and relied on tourism for 11% of its gross domestic product before the pandemic. Like many Southeast Asian countries, it lacks the kind of zoning, land-use regulations and hotel permits that would allow the government to effectively manage the impact of tourism, experts say, even though there was a political will.

But Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a marine scientist at Kasetsart University in Bangkok, thinks there is reason for optimism.

“When you’re driving at very high speeds, it’s hard to slow down. With covid, it’s like the engine of the car has stopped,” he said. “Now we start again and we can move forward carefully, slowly.”

The pandemic has allowed more Thais to experience the beauty of their own country, Thamrongnawasawat added. When it comes to protecting him now, he added, “we have a much better chance than before.”

Regine Cabato reported from Manila. Wilawan Watcharasakwet contributed reporting from Bangkok.

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