With hundreds of thousands of Chinese, Indian, Russian and other Southeast Asian visitors arriving every day at our beach resorts, historic towns and cities, managing these huge numbers seems like an impossible task.
In 2017, Southeast Asia saw 134 million tourist arrivals, up from 113 million in 2016, already higher than ASEAN’s 2020 projection of 123 million. Visitors from China constitute some 28 million of the total, the number one source of tourists to the region.
However, ASEAN tourism practitioners keep complaining about poor yields. Chinese tourists come in droves, but the perception is that economic benefits to local communities are limited.
Indeed, the costs sometimes outweigh the positives.
For instance, the region’s once pristine islands and beaches may well be close to an environmental apocalypse if the authorities don’t intervene to halt the degradation.
It is true that tourism represents a critical injection of cash into local communities. It also provides employment for millions of waiters, hotel-maids, taxi drivers, stall-keepers, pool attendants and more. To be exact, tourism accounts for 14.4 million jobs.
But for Boracay, the Philippines’ fabled island getaway, decades of unchecked growth, poor supervision and almost non-existent infrastructure has turned the resort – in the words of President Rodrigo Duterte – into a “cesspool”.
Indeed, earlier this year, Duterte summarily closed down what Condé Nast Traveler in 2016 had dubbed the “world’s best island”.
The Filipinos aren’t alone. Thai authorities have also moved swiftly.
In March, the iconic Maya Bay on the island of Koh Phi Phi, a location made famous by Leonardo DiCaprio’s movie “The Beach”, was closed to the public – preventing an estimated 4,000 daily visitors from further ruining the surrounding coral reefs of which some 80% were already thought to be damaged. Realising the extent of the destruction, Thai authorities later extended the closure indefinitely.
Many observers are also deeply-concerned about Indonesia’s Raja Ampat islands. Located on the westernmost tip of Papua, its marine-protected area of some 9,100 square kilometers is vulnerable to unchecked tourism. Last year, a British cruise ship the “Caledonian Sky” accidentally destroyed over 13,000 square meters of coral reefs.
Last week Team Ceritalah sat down with Philippine Secretary of Tourism Bernadette 'Berna' Romulo-Puyat for Boracay’s ‘soft’ re-opening. The diminutive but punchy cabinet member, the scion of a prominent Philippine family (her father is Alberto Romulo, a much respected former Foreign Secretary) is firm and direct: “I have no regrets closing down the island. We needed six months of rehabilitation – closing more than 440 hotels and many of its 2,600 businesses.”
Has it been worth the effort?
“Look at these waters: they’re clear – and look at the white sand. This is how Boracay was thirty years ago. And I am determined to make sure other tourist destinations – Bohol and Cebu – follow suit.”
Secretary 'Berna' has an eye for detail, going on to explain:
“We’ll be limiting Boracay’s carrying capacity to 19,000 tourists at any one time, so that the island’s resources are not strained. Eco-friendly policies have been in place for a long time - this is nothing new. People just need to follow them. The environment is important. We need to change the mindset of the people.”
Richard Fabila a Boracay-based environmental officer is doing his part. “We test the waters three times a day, every day – and every morning locals participate in a beach cleanup”.
Regulations are being tightly enforced.
For example, tourists will be banned from setting up day beds, tables and chairs, beach umbrellas and the like anywhere within the newly-regulated 30-meter exclusion zone from the shoreline.
There will now also be rigorous rules on partying, which include no alcohol on the beaches. At the same time, water sports like jet skiing can only take place 200 meters away from the shoreline.
With the Philippines leading the charge for sustainable tourism in Southeast Asia, it is hoped that the region’s policy-makers will focus more on the yield rather than raw numbers.
So while everyone deserves a getaway now and then, it is important to ensure that recreation does not lead to degradation of our region’s irreplaceable natural treasures.
*Follow Karim Raslan on Twitter @fromKMR / Instagram @fromkmr
** The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Astro AWANI.