Covid gave Southeast Asia a break from overtourism. What now?


Beaches full of sunbathers. Bays full of boats and snorkelers. Trails full of hikers and their porters again.

More than two years after the coronavirus pandemic brought international travel to a halt, most Southeast Asian countries have reopened their borders with minimal requirements for vaccinated travelers. Millions turned up over the summer, fueled by pent-up wanderlust.

The return of these tourists is a relief to an economically struggling region – but it comes at a cost of its own.

While the pandemic crippled Southeast Asia’s $393 billion tourism industry and wiped out millions of jobs, it also allowed many of its natural landscapes and heritage sites to recover from years of destruction and pollution. Now some government officials and community leaders are pushing against a return to rampant tourism, which scientists have warned for years is causing irreparable damage to the environment.

At the same time, those who depend on tourism revenue are keen to welcome back visitors – as many of them as possible.

“The industry is very fluid right now,” said Liz Ortiguera, executive director of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting sustainable travel.

A growing number of governments and businesses are asking about ways to make tourism less destructive, she said, but as the pandemic subsides, reviving some environmentally damaging mass tourism is “a given.”

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

“In a way, the pandemic has been an excellent opportunity to show what happens when people can give nature a break,” said Varawut Silpa-archa, Thailand’s natural resources and environment minister The Washington Post.

In 2020, Thailand closed all 155 of its nature parks to visitors for the first time. While they reopened in July, Silpa-archa has ordered each park to be closed for at least a month every year. He has also banned single-use plastics from parks and said he “won’t hesitate” to close a destination long-term if tourists wreak havoc. He has few concerns, he added, about possible corporate opposition.

“To be honest, I really don’t care if they agree,” said Silpa-archa. “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 met local opposition after proposing to limit visitors to the ancient Borobudur temple in Java to 15 at a time and to increase tickets for foreigners from $25/€24.90 to $100/€99. to fund conservation.

Hundreds of tourism workers went on strike when the government announced plans to raise entrance fees to Komodo National Park in East Nusa Tenggara. Price increases for both locations are now suspended.

“The challenge,” said Steven Schipani, tourism industry specialist at the Asian Development Bank, “is that so much investment has sunk.”

Annual tourist arrivals in Southeast Asia doubled from 2010 to 2019, peaking at 137 million just before the pandemic. This growth was expected to continue at least through 2030, driven in large part by a growing regional middle class. In Southeast Asia, businesses and government agencies have made major investments to prepare for and benefit from these visitors. Much of that infrastructure — airports, hotels, sewage systems — is still in place, Schipani said.

“There’s capacity for 140 million people,” he noted. And there is “immense pressure” to ensure capacities are met.

In 2018, then-Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte closed the white-sand island of Boracay for six months, saying overtourism had turned it into a “cesspool.” Since reopening, the island has retained certain sustainability measures, although these are now being tested. Over the Easter weekend in April, Boracay exceeded its daily visitor limit multiple times, authorities said.

Nowie Potenciano, 44, runs several restaurants and a boutique hotel on the island. Tourists returning to Boracay in recent months have been literally “hungry” for new experiences, he said, and many are ordering more food than in the past. He’s happy they’re back but doesn’t think things can go back to ‘business as usual’ post-pandemic.

“It’s something we’re all still figuring out,” Potenciano said. “How do we keep the flow of visitors going without upsetting the delicate balance of the entire island?”

Almost 40 million tourists visited Thailand in 2019, and many spent time on the dazzling southern coast. Research shows that from 2017 to 2019, at least two locations in the South — Patong Beach and Maya Bay — regularly exceeded their “carrying capacity,” which refers to the number of people a location can adequately accommodate, without affecting the environment or the local community harming community.

Somyot Sarapong, who works for an ecotourism agency in Bangkok, lived and worked in the Phi Phi Islands in the 1990s but left in 2003 when outside developers began building tall concrete beachfront hotels that were crowding out locally operated resorts . When 56-year-old Sarapong returned to visit friends in 2019, he no longer recognized what he used to consider a “piece of heaven”. Colorful fish that were once so plentiful were difficult to spot.

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

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

Sarapong wants the government to do more to stave off excessive tourism, although some sustainability experts are skeptical officials will do what is necessary.

Known for its hospitality, Thailand relied on tourism for 11 percent of its gross domestic product before the pandemic. Like many countries in Southeast Asia, it lacks the kind of zoning, land-use regulations and hotel permits that would allow the government to effectively manage tourism’s impact, experts say, even if the political will were there.

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

“When you’re driving at very high speeds, it’s difficult to slow down. With Covid, it’s like the car engine stopped,” he said. “Now we’re starting again and we can proceed carefully and slowly.”

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

Wilawan Watcharasakwet contributed to this report from Bangkok Covid gave Southeast Asia a break from overtourism. What now?

Fry Electronics Team

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