Thailand VS Tourism in 2019…
As I begin writing this second instalment from Thailand, I am sitting by the side of the resort pool as dusk falls, birds chirping away in the surrounding palm trees, having had a day of swimming in the sea and hotel pool, along with my first experience of a Thai Massage (I had one in one of the little, open aired wooden shacks that occupy the many beach resorts and establishments along the beach front). Who knew my body could be stretched in so many different ways?! All of that sounds like a pretty picture-perfect, romantic depiction of tropical island life in the paradise world surrounding the shores of Thailand. And yes, by one stretch of the imagination, you couldn’t possibly comprehend a more idyllic and tranquil setting to spend your vacation. However, by another, you are left contemplating what life might be like without the immense influx of tourists amalgamating from all imaginable corners of the globe on this little drop of island ecstasy in the Gulf of Thailand.
The fishing scene in the Gulf of Thailand, on the way across to Koh Samui Island
People might think that I’m about to write a massive critical blog, however, that is not my motivation here. I am just writing about my experience. I am in a relatively unique and privileged position for the first 10 days of my time in Thailand, in the sense that I am travelling with a local Thai – my friend of 12 years who is Thai and lives in Bangkok. The luxury to be able to travel with a local, and not as a typical tourist, gives a different and, perhaps, a slightly more representative perspective to life in Thailand. Over the last couple of days, we have had a handful of conversations about the impacts of tourism on life in Thailand, on how it effects your everyday, 9-5 worker, Thai lower and middle classes both in Bangkok and further afield. Having been on Koh Samui, an island off the western coast of Thailand for a couple of days now, a place neither of us have been before, we have both been drawn back to this discussion and debate surrounding the current tourism industry in Thailand.
Sea view on Koh Samui Island
Visiting one of the islands in the Ang Thong National Marine Park
And it is quite a tricky subject to approach. However, after a few discussions, we both agree that tourism in this part of the world is both a blessing and a curse. And here is why.
In 2018, one of the world’s most famous beaches, located on Ko Phi Phi Leh Island in Maya Bay, off the south-west coast of Thailand was closed to allow the beach and environment to recover from the excessive stream of tourist visiting each year. On average, around 200 boats a day would bring tourists across to the island to visit the beach. So this then scrutinises what is important – the tourists and the money that it brings in, or preserving our world’s most stunning and beautiful places?. In this instance, the Thai authorities did take action and decided to close the area for a period of a year to allow recovery – it was estimated that more than 80% of the coral life surrounding the Maya Bay area had been destroyed by the thousands upon thousands of tourists flocking to the area. Although I am not in that location, I am on an island off the east coast of Thailand, it isn’t hard to see why Maya Bay beach had to be closed from tourists.
The beaches here on Koh Samui are pretty clean I am told in comparison to other parts of Thailand. Why? Perhaps it is because Koh Samui is slightly further away and takes a bit more in terms of logistics and planning to arrive here. However, I genuinely wonder how long it will be before other islands such as Koh Samui start adopting this trend seen with Maya Bay and begin blocking or at least controlling the number of tourists visiting the beaches, especially if numbers increase over the coming years. What happens when the beaches in Phuket and Krabi get so destroyed by the tourism industry that people start looking for alternatives of where to visit? Will everyone start heading to places like Koh Samui instead? And if so, what would that mean for the beaches and tourism industry over on this island? Are more tourists a positive or a negative thing?
Ang Thong National Marine Park
Maya Bay is located in the south-west of Thailand, not far from Phuket, one of the major tourist hotspots for Thailand. In amongst one of our many conversations on this trip, I learnt that for any local to get a decent enough job and therefore income in the Phuket area, they had to have a high level of English-speaking skills, in order to accommodate for the sheer number of tourists in the area. Something about this didn’t sit quite right with me. I don’t know if this is a common trend in other parts of the world, I feel that from my own personal travels, in both Europe and further afield, that it isn’t. Although English is one of the most widely spoken languages across the world, I’ve never felt it is a determining factor in whether people get a job or not. The fact that locals to that area of Thailand, people who have grown up there, had generations of families living in the area will struggle to find work based on their ability to speak English feels wrong. A local Thai resident shouldn’t have their employment decided on their English Language skills. You could also argue that tourism has in turn created a huge amount of jobs and a vital source of income for those people – but are the local people getting the jobs, or are people coming from further afield such as Bangkok to work, and set up businesses and companies to capitalise on the tourism?
Back in Bangkok, on our various taxi journeys around and through the city, we have seen a vast amount of new buildings springing up left right and centre. But, these aren’t places for your everyday hard worker of Bangkok. The hoardings on the outside of the building sites are all showing photographs and descriptions of luxury new apartments, fancy restaurants or five-star hotels, and this is the way that Bangkok appears to be moving. It has the feeling that the city now has so many foreigners, predominantly from China and Asia. The city has the feeling that is trying to cater more to the high end, wealthy foreigners. I am informed that the price of living in Bangkok has shot up significantly over the last few years, and that the development of these new fancy high rises is partly an outcome of that. There is a feeling that Bangkok and to an extent some of the island locations as well, are trying to target the long weekenders and people who stay short term. The idea is to attract short term visitors and get them to spend a lot over a short period of time, rather than to attract longer term visitors who maybe spend smaller amounts, but over a longer period of time. There are a huge amount of high-end and expensive shopping malls across Bangkok – all filled with designer shops across multiple floors. The desire to attract wealth to Bangkok is there in plain sight for all to see. But it does make me wonder how long the backpacker scene can realistically continue. Maybe because I am not backpacking, I have seen a different perspective. I have seen Bangkok from a locals perspective and insight. But from my time in the city, it definitely feels like the city is targeting a specific market – the rich! I am sure if you’re a backpacker, you can travel and eat cheaply and continue to do that if you know how. I am sure there will always be places that want to attract that industry – but for the locals living in Bangkok, the prices are rising, the cost of living increasing more and more and the young people struggling to afford things in the same way as perhaps they could ten years ago. Sounds a little bit like the UK!
Fishermans Village, Bophut Beach, Koh Samui Island
But the islands of Thailand need tourism and the substantial money it generates to help preserve and maintain the beauty of the islands, to help protect them. On Thursday, we travelled to Ang Thong National Marine Park, which is a collection of 42 islands in the Gulf of Thailand. We visited two of the islands. Despite being off-season, there were in my opinion still a significant number of tourists, from a handful of different tour companies, although I was told that it was actually relatively quiet compared to the height of summer. Despite that, the beaches and the islands were impressively clean and litter free. The islands had been set up for tourism, with the beaches having a couple of stalls selling drinks and ice creams and so on, and on the bigger of the two islands that we visited there was also a restaurant and a campsite. How the islands differ in the summer is hard to say, but I got the impression that Ang Thong National Marine Park was making a conscious and considerable effort to keep the beaches and local marine life protected, whilst also welcoming and promoting the positive affect that tourism can play. The two can go hand in hand and support one another, in fact they probably need too in my opinion, it just has to been done with carefulness and thought to ensure that both the environment and tourism industry can thrive simultaneously.
I have been on Koh Samui for 3 days now and I am here in the off-season. You can tell, the restaurants and bars and only half full at best, the hotels and resorts a similar story. It doesn’t take much to imagine the island in full swing in the height of the peak season though. I am always someone who prefers to spend my money in the local shops and restaurants as opposed to any big chains. I feel that supporting the locals and independents is an important part of travelling wherever you visit, even if only in the UK. On Koh Samui, we had the option of staying in chain hotels but opted for independent and we paid a fantastic price for the places that we stayed and wholly enjoyed our time in them.
Would I come back in peak season – perhaps. I am always very conscious of the environmental footprint that I leave behind, however, I am also keen to support such precious and incredible parts of our world. For sure, being on the island when there are more tourists has its benefits – a more active and social nightlife scene being one, but I think we all have to consider the reasons why we want to visit these places of natural beauty and whatever your own personal motivation for visiting, we should all at least do our bit as best we can to consider the environment footprint that we leave behind. Has Thailand been over-touristed? Is travelling in Thailand changing from what it was one like maybe ten years ago? The next few years will be interesting for Thailand to see what direction it goes and to see what type of traveller it attracts more…