Thailand’s Maya Bay and the entire Filipino island of Boracay - two perennial “Bucket List” destinations - are temporarily closing for business... It could be the dramatic wake-up call that tourists need, or it could be too little too late.
Eighteen years ago, Maya Bay got the Hollywood treatment when it was chosen as the filming location for The Beach. The story of an American backpacker’s desire to return to unspoilt nature struck a chord with travellers worldwide, and the number of visitors to the once-idyllic beach exploded... the irony there is as tragic as it is obvious.
Recent figures released by the Thai authorities estimate that up to 5,000 tourists visit Maya Bay every single day - leaving behind plastic waste and an overwhelmed island infrastructure.
Plastic debris left behind by tourists is threatening reefs and wildlife
It’s hard to see a downside to the shutdown... at least from an outside perspective: governments taking radical steps to protect the environment is undeniably a good thing, and people have been quick to praise the Thai authorities.
From a local perspective, however, it’s a bit more complicated: the Phi Phi Islands have become almost entirely dependent on the same tourism that’s destroying their homes. The Thai people and authorities are all too aware of this. Dr Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a prominent marine biologist, said “Overworked and tired, all the beauty of the beach is gone... An ideal solution is a permanent closure, which is not possible due to our total reliance on tourism revenue.”
The Thai response is worthy of praise, but there’s a concerning caveat: the shutdown will only be in effect for four months... and while it’s true that a lot can happen in a short time, will it be enough to pull a ravaged ecosystem back from the brink?
Maya Bay is Not Alone... And Thailand’s mournful stance seems pretty tame compared to the fiery mood of the Man in Manilla.
It’s not often that I find myself agreeing with Rodrigo Duterte.
The Filipino president has been described as everything from “eccentric” to “despotic”, and his showreel includes proclaiming “I don’t give a shit about human rights” and calling Barack Obama a “Son of a Whore” on two separate, nonconsecutive occasions.
So I suppose you could say he’s the type to “Go big or Go home”... which is precisely what he’s doing by closing off the entirety of Boracay Island - one of the most famously idyllic destinations on Earth. He has given no definite cap on how long the shutdown will continue for - and the tone of his statement on the move is characteristic: “You people have turned it into a cesspool - there’s shit everywhere: for as long as there’s shit draining into my sea, I won’t give you the time of day to visit the island.”
Polite? Not especially... Justified? Well, honestly, yes... It’s hard to argue that we deserve white sandy beaches and cheerful locals when we have a tendency to leave paradises looking like they just hosted a particularly unseemly squat party.
Duterte on a mission is not a man to be trifled with - just ask any of the people he’s had summarily executed for petty crimes... but maybe - just this once - he shouldn’t chill out. He has committed to providing the 17,000 locals with emergency financial relief to offset the lost tourism revenue, and, going by his statement, he doesn’t care much about staying matey with Western backpackers.
But is it too late?
Plastic waste has, in recent months, become public enemy number one around the world: David Attenborough pulled no punches when he used his immense platform to expose us to the repercussions of wasteful, unsustainable lifestyles. But plastic is just the tip of the iceberg: when tourism booms, we leave behind more than fag butts and beer bottles - we leave a lasting impression on the economies and cultures of the places we visit. The Phi Phi islanders are facing the bleak prospect of a season with no income, and Duterte’s unapologetic anger betrays his lack of regard for alienating tourists.
It’s nice to think about cleanup efforts and well-publicised government programs as being the solution to our worst habits as guests when we travel - but in reality the buck stops with us. We can prevent the need for drastic, disappointing and saddening governmental interventions by planning our trips around where our presence is appreciated and wanted. We can be a part of the solution before it becomes an irreversible problem... the sad truth is it may be too late to save Maya Beach, and countless other destinations like it, but it’s never too late to learn and look to the future.
Simple consideration of the lifestyle of the places we visit is the first step - respect for the capacity of our destinations and an understanding of a nation’s resources is another. We, as travellers, are a part of all of this - and we’re not exempt from responsibility.
Travel safely - and travel kindly.
- Walker Pappin