Sustainable tourism: is it even possible?

With hundreds of thousands of Chinese, Indian, Russian and Southeast Asian visitors arriving every day at 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 more than Asean’s 2020 projection of 123 million. Visitors from China constitute some 28 million of the total and are the No 1 source of tourists to the region.

However, Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) 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, 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 nonexistent infrastructure have turned the resort – in the words of President Rodrigo Duterte – into a “cesspool”.

Indeed, 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.

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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 per cent 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 kilometres is vulnerable to unchecked tourism. Last year, a British cruise ship accidentally destroyed more than 13,000 square metres of coral reefs.

Last week Team Ceritalah sat down with Philippine secretary of tourism Bernadette “Berna” Romulo-Puyat to discuss 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.”

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“Look at these waters: they’re clear – and look at the white sand. This is how Boracay was 30 years ago. And I am determined to make sure other tourist destinations – Bohol and Cebu – follow suit.”

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 clean-up”.

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 30 metres 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 must take place at least 200 metres from the shoreline.

With the Philippines leading the charge for sustainable tourism in Southeast Asia, it is hoped that the region’s policymakers 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 the degradation of our region’s irreplaceable natural treasures.