Travel to Southeast Asia is reviving as calls for sustainable tourism grow

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BANGKOK — Beaches full of sunbathers. Harbors filled with boats and snorkelers. The trails again busy with hikers and their porters.

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

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 encroachment and pollution. Now, some government officials and community leaders are pushing back against a return to rampant tourism that scientists have warned for years is causing irreparable environmental damage. At the same time, those who rely on tourist revenue are desperate to welcome visitors – as many of them as possible.

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“The industry is very much in flux right now,” said Liz Ortiguera, chief executive of the Asia Pacific Travel Association, a nonprofit that advocates for sustainable travel. A growing number of governments and businesses are looking for ways to make tourism less destructive, she said, but as the pandemic fades, the resurgence of some ecologically damaging mass tourism is “a given.”

A month after Thailand closed its borders in 2020, a herd of dugongs – among the world’s most endangered marine mammals – were spotted swimming peacefully in 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 was a great opportunity, in a way, to show what happens when people are able to give nature a break,” Varawut Silpa-archa, Thailand’s minister of natural resources and environment, told the Washington Post.

In 2020, Thailand closed all 155 of its nature parks to visitors for the first time ever. While they reopened in July, Silpa-archa has ordered each park to close for at least one month each year. He has also banned the use of single-use plastic from parks and said he would “not hesitate” to close a destination long-term if tourists wreak havoc. He has little concern about possible objections from businesses.

“Frankly, I don’t care if they agree,” he said. “My job is to preserve nature for our future generations.”

Recent attempts by other countries to regulate tourism have been less 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 raised from $25 to $100 to 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 countries are now pending.

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

The number of annual tourist arrivals in 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, mainly due to the growth of the regional middle class. In Southeast Asia, businesses and government agencies made huge 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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“It has capacity for 140 million people,” he noted. And there is “tremendous pressure” to make sure capacity is met.

In 2018, then-Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte closed the white-sand island of Boracay for six months, saying over-the-top tourism had turned it into a “backwater”. Since reopening, the island has maintained certain sustainability measures, although these are now being tested. During the Easter weekend in April, Boracay exceeded its daily visitor limit several 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, with many ordering more food than they might have in the past. He’s glad they’re back, but doesn’t think things can go back to “business as usual” after the pandemic.

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

In 2019, nearly 40 million tourists visited Thailand, and many spent time along its dazzling southern coastline. 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 place can reasonably accommodate without harm 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 high-rise, concrete hotels on the beach that displaced local resorts. . When Sarapong, 56, returned in 2019 to visit friends, he no longer recognized the country he considered a “piece of paradise”. The brightly colored fish, once so abundant, had become difficult to distinguish.

Sarapong made another trip to the islands earlier this year before Thailand reopened its borders to international visitors. While swimming in the sea, he saw 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 in Phi Phi,” Sarapong said.

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Sarapong wants to see the government do more to avoid overcrowding, although some sustainability experts are skeptical that officials will do what is needed.

Thailand is known for its hospitality and 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 the impact of tourism, experts say, even if it had the political will.

But Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a marine scientist at Kasetsart University in Bangkok, believes there is reason to be optimistic.

“When you’re driving too fast, it’s hard to slow down. With Covid, it’s like the engine of the car stopped,” he said. “Now we’re starting again and we can go carefully, slowly.”

The pandemic allowed more Thai people to reacquaint themselves with the beauty of their country, Thamrongnawasawat added. When it comes to protecting it now, he added, “we have a much, much better chance than before.”

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

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