Paradise Lost: Can Southeast Asia's Beaches Cope with Overtourism?

Paradise Lost: Can Southeast Asia's Beaches Cope with Overtourism?
Bali. Boracay Island. Maya Bay. One by one, these paradise destinations are being closed off to the public by government mandates – an 11th-hour effort to stop fragile ecosystems from collapsing under the pressure of years of unmanaged tourism.

According to experts in South East Asia, sustaining a highly profitable tourism industry, protecting local livelihoods and preserving natural resources is a complex balance that has yet to be struck.

“The tourism industry in the Island of Boracay spurs our economy and provides livelihood opportunities for many of our people,” says Helen J. Catalbas, the regional director for Western Visayas at the department of tourism in the Philippines. “However, it is undeniable that the unhampered development and unmitigated influx of tourists to the island, coupled with poor governance and lack of planning, have strained the island, polluted its waters and deteriorated its natural resources.”

In February, the national government took the decision to close Boracay for six months. The hope is this will allow ecosystems to recover and local agencies to integrate new programs that will transform the island into a fully sustainable tourism destination by 2022.

Tom Dallison, the head of science at Coral Cay Conservation in the Philippines, expressed cautious optimism about this approach. “Beach closures can work but will six months be enough? Marine ecosystems can recover surprisingly quickly as they are resilient but this is often over years, not months,” he says. “If the correct measures are not in place to minimise the impact of tourism at Boracay once it reopens, the closure may have been in vain.”

Dallison’s reticence is warranted. The announcement of Boracay’s temporary closure came just weeks after the government gave Macau casino operator Galaxy Entertainment Group Ltd permission to build a $500 million casino and resort there, according to a report by Reuters.

Alex Mellon / © Culture Trip

The cost of tourism

Sian Williams of the Gili Eco Trust, a conservation organization in Lombok, Indonesia, says the negative impacts of tourism on the environment are largely the product of slow or unmanaged infrastructure development and overexploitation of resources.

Hotels and resorts scramble to meet high demand and operate without proper plumbing and sewage systems. These then leak huge amounts of nutrients into the water, creating inhospitable conditions for marine life. Roads and other infrastructure are also rapidly and haphazardly upgraded, causing vegetation to be stripped from the land and sediment to run off onto coastline coral reefs. As photosynthetic animals, these are effectively suffocated under a layer of muck and algae.

An even more visible sign of environmental degradation across South East Asia is the rubbish that has accompanied the swell in tourist numbers. Traditionally, communities would use palm leaves and other forms of sustainable packaging, limiting the need for robust waste management structures; tourism has introduced all the unnecessary retail ‘comforts’ expected by visitors.

“This waste produces up to 15 tonnes of rubbish daily,” Williams says. Gili Trawangan, where her work is based, is just 15 square kilometres.

Wayan Aksara is a local leader of Trash Hero, an international NGO that energises communities to manage waste and adopt more sustainable behaviours. His community has organised regular beach cleanups that also educate locals about unsustainable practices. More people are joining in every week, Aksara claims, which has garnered the attention and support of the government.

Williams argues that activities that are extreme stressors on the environment – illegal anchoring, dumping, overfishing – occur largely because of lack of education and the prioritisation of profit. The Gili Islands are known for their incredible sea turtle populations but operators of snorkel tours often focus on their capacity to accommodate customer demand at the expense of the local environment.

“Last year, we fundraised and installed 24 new mooring buoys,” Williams says, “yet still in high season around 60+ anchors daily are being thrown onto coral reefs.”

Alex Mellon / © Culture Trip

Andrew Hewett, a spokesperson for the Phi Phi Island Conservation and Preservation Group, echoes these concerns. On Koh Phi Phi, his own island paradise some 3,500 kilometres away from the Gili Islands, the landmark call to restrict the number of boats entering Maya Bay, the site made famous by The Beach (2000), was made earlier this year.

“It can only have a positive effect if restrictions are followed up by other implementation of Thai laws in regard to protecting coral reefs and local marine life,” he says. “However, if all the boats that are usually going to Maya Bay are now going into [other local bays], then I can see there being a spillover impact on the coral reefs [there] unless preparations are made to receive this additional traffic.”

Conservation meets policy

The benefits of tourism are so entrenched in many areas that suddenly removing them can lead to other dire consequences for the environment. According to Dallison, a single manta ray is valued at over $2 million throughout its lifetime in terms of economic benefit from tourism but worth an immediate $200 when sold for its gills on the Chinese medicine market.

“We have to consider the economic consequences of this closure,” Dallison says. “Although beneficial to the marine environment, what about those stakeholders who made a direct income from tourism at Boracay?”

Alex Mellon / © Culture Trip

Catalbas’ team is working to ensure that Boracay’s beach closure is not in vain. A compliance monitoring office has been established to oversee recovery efforts and submit periodic reports to an inter-agency task force and community stakeholders have been identified for inclusion in consultations and workshops to ensure conservation strategies continue after Boracay is reopened.

Paradise Protected

One strategy that has shown promise as a mitigation and rehabilitation method is the establishment of a Marine Protected Area (MPA). “Communities are able to charge fees for [activities] within the MPA, generating income whilst also protecting their resources,” Dallison says. “[These] communities are able to monitor the reef and close it to tourists if they perceive its health is deteriorating.”

MPAs are not without their flaws. So-called paper MPAs are all too common: these zones are created by legislation and then forgotten. Ensuring that authorities, stretched thin for resources, understand the tangible incentives of enforcement is crucial to achieving environmental and economic goals.

“Our studies have shown that although coral coverage has decreased over three years, the rate of that decrease was much less inside the MPAs than that recorded outside,” Dallison says. However, he notes that in areas where compliance, support and enforcement of regulations are low, incidents like poaching, exploitation and other illegal activities increase.

This is where a strong local voice is needed. Just last week, a video of a pregnant whale shark – a species listed as endangered by the IUCN Red List and internationally protected under CITES – caught illegally by fishermen off the coast of Phuket in Thailand went viral through the efforts of Go-Eco Phuket, a local conservation group.

Alex Mellon / © Culture Trip

The captains of the two trawling vessels now face fines of up to THB 3 million ($94,000) and the confiscation of their vessels – a huge gesture of policy enforcement for an area that maintains a spot on the European Union’s yellow-flag watch list for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

Efforts from the top and at the grass roots, and on every level in between, will be necessary to preserve this beautiful region for generations to come.