23 April 2013

Long Tail Tribulation

Koh Phi Phi Don - Once I am sure this place was one of the most beautiful islands on earth. The craggy cliffs rise like fingers grasping up through the sea. In the middle of the hand is this little plot of an island, where jungles ride over hills and waves caress endless white beaches.

Or that’s what it once was.

Here, now, the beaches are crowded and overflowing with boats, ropes, bars and wonderers. Finding an empty, beautiful beach here is like finding a tiny piece of glass in a handful of sand.  Every beach is littered with trash, and the boats are constantly pulling in and out, unloading their tourists, and loading up more to take to some other island.

One of my first thoughts when landing on this island was that it severely needed a limitation on the number of people allowed to visit. But that kind of regulation is of course impossible, seeing as the people living off of koh phi phi Don and Leh would be put out of work.

Would they be able to make a living? Probably yes, in some other way. But whose right is it to regulate how much money someone should attempt to make?

One thing is certain; if the islands of Thailand’s south don not begin to regulate tourism, they face destruction, disasters for both Thailand’s environment and culture.

The environment of the south of Thailand is precious. It hosts some of the world’s most divine marine structures and habitats. The island formations themselves are awe-inspiring, otherworldly creations, rising out of the water with jagged cliffs and narrow, rugged caves.

It is no wonder that tourism has hit this area of the world with fury. Being so beautiful has been southern Thailand’s downfall. Since tourism started really picking up in the 70’s and 80’s in Thailand, the toll on the environment has been growing and growing.

In one documentary, a group of students traveling in Thailand in the 1990’s search for a clean, beautiful, un-occupied beach one day. They rent a water polluting long-tail (water taxi), thereby spurring the tourism economy, and proving the point of the devastation that tourists have brought to the islands all in a few minutes of film.

Every beach they find has seen some touch of human occupation, whether in the form of huts or just trash washed up on shore. Distraught and a little depressed, the party seekers “settle” for a beach where they can sit and relax, taking drugs, drinking and doing what westerners do best.

Regulations on the islands are the trickiest part about conservation, but aren’t regulations usually the trickiest part. By combining human rights and rights of the environment, more oft than not, the human rights win out. Unless of course those human rights are actually economic rights or money’s rights. In that case, no one wins at all except Thai government.

From the devastation I saw on the islands, I propose a regulation on how many people can visit an island at one time. This could be raised and lowered according to holidays like Songkran, where the local businesses would gain the most benefit from tourists. But during other seasons, the amount could be seriously lowered to allow for the recovery of the environment. Certain times like these could be times for environmentalist groups to come in and clean up the area, recover certain flora and fauna and revive any destroyed habitats.

Ideal as it may seem, this tiny regulation might never be passed in Thai Law.

For a country that has development on its mind, bringing in as many tourists as possible, for as much of the year as possible, is ideal for the growth of the economy.

Let the Long Tails come. 

Avery Ches
Tulane University 


Kayla Murphy said...

I was utterly awed by Koh Phi Phi, its beauty is unmatched by any other beach I have ever set foot on. Yet every evening when that tide went out, all you could see were beached boats, trash strewn throughout, and a bunch of drunken tourists. I guess I sort of expected this crazy party scene on Koh Phi Phi Don, what was really sad for me to see was Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi Leh. The beach, literally made famous by the movie "The Beach" was supposed to be the beach of all beaches, paradise in a nutshell. So I guess you can imagine how much of its charm was lost when the entire shoreline was littered with a spattering of speedboats and partying tourists. Tourists are not allowed to live on this island, supposedly in the interest of the local trade on Swiftlet nests than of actual conservation efforts. Either way, the numbers in which they are boated into the bay must offset any environmental value gained from not allowing them to stay. I agree that the number of tourists allowed to visit the islands should be severely limited. I hope the Thai government realizes how fragile these islands are before its too late.

Melanie Ferraro said...

Like you, my first instinct is that the number of visitors to the island each year should be limited. I really like how you refined it by proposing that fluxuations could be allowed for holidays like Songkran, and that during the off season environmental groups can be invited to help with preservation. I think severely limiting visitors all the time wouldn’t be realistic, but this offers a more obtainable solution. Even though I think limiting visitors makes sense, I still struggle a bit with the idea. First, if the number of visitors is curtailed, who controls which visitors are allowed to enter the island? Would it be a permit lottery system, the same as rafting down the Grand Canyon? And if so, I wonder if the government would charge substantial amounts of money for the permit, thus excluding citizens from visiting their own beaches in favor of visiting foreigners who could pay more? Second, the idea of limiting access to natural areas reminds me of the national parks situation all over again where we saw eviction for the ‘sake of conservation.’ I don’t know if this would actually happen, but I feel like it’s a similar mindset. You had a good point too by bringing up the local people and what would happen to them and the local economy since it is now rooted so heavily in tourism. I feel very confused about the whole thing and what ethically is the best course of action, or if there even really is one. Until then, I think I side with you- that preservation is important and that placing limitations on visitors can be a good first step.

Aziza Seykota said...

Avery, I love how you explain the beautiful island of Koh Phi Phi. I visited there too and thought it had such a mystical energy about it, and felt like the only thing wrong with this heaven was the thousands of tourists, the trash and the pollution. When I talked to some of my friends back home about this, they said, “Well, that comes with the territory I suppose. If there is an absolutely island paradise, tourists are bound to find it.”  We went snorkeling on a long tail boat tour, and I got to see the damage first hand. We pulled up to “Monkey Island” which was actually just a continual cycle of hoards of boats pulling in and out of a small cove, filled with tourists gawking at the monkeys. The water beneath us was polluted with boat fuel and floating trash lapping up on shore. The tour guides overfed the monkeys out of their pockets so they would come out and make a show for the tourists. We all snapped pictures from the boat. It gave me a really sad feeling.
If the island did begin to reduce tourism in some way, I have no doubt people would find another way to make a living because they were fine in the past before the explosion of tourism. I do really like the idea of limiting tourism as a way to allow for the cleaning and recovery of the environment but I agree with you that people with economic progress on their mind may have trouble hearing the environmental cry for help.

Sonja said...

I am impressed reading this blog post and these comments by the variety of perspectives from which we are learning to evaluate the "right course of action" on any given issue. Before coming on this CIEE program, I think I would have seen this issue in fairly simple terms: the islands should be preserved for their own sake, therefore tourists should be limited.I would have assumed that the process of limiting tourists would not be carried out by some fair, just, uninterested party, rather than realizing the Thai government would run this process, and they, as Avery pointed out, are concerned first and foremost with increasing development and promoting economic growth. I would also not have considered the people who work on the island and the fact that limiting tourism could limit their income. Furthermore, I would definitely not have thought about the possibility that limiting tourism could keep Thai people from enjoying their own islands, and that it could unfairly favor the wealthy and powerful like so many other systems. Reading over these comments, I am grateful for the depth with which we are learning to understand issues and the ability to step back and see things as they are before jumping to righteous judgment or assuming we know what is best. This issue, as everyone has mentioned, is extremely complex and one that is replicated all over the world.
It seems to me that since the area is such a gem, so biologically diverse and beautiful, it deserves additional protection and caution to ensure that future generations also get to enjoy its beauty and so that its rich ecosystem survives. Unfortunately, the fact that it is such a gem also ensures people will flock to it, meaning that a balance of human and environmental needs is essential to its survival. Just like in so many other cases we have learned about this semester (generating power, growing food,) this balance is hard to find.

Astrid Quinones said...

Reading your post, I was most intrigued by your comment on how when it comes to how we prioritize rights, we tend to go for human rights over environmental rights. Why is that? I giggled a little when you said (I am paraphrasing) that if it has to do with the economy then no one benefits except the Thai government. I'm not giggling because it's funny but because it's sadly true. I really wish we would give all of these rights' violations equal value when deciding what is the best way to fix the problem.
The suggestion to limit visitors and tourists is very interesting. I am not saying that I disagree with you but I started thinking, what about other beaches around the world? How are they being conserved and kept beautiful? I visited Phuket over spring break and I did not have that experience with long tail boats or trash on the beaches. I wonder why that is.. In any case maybe since the Thai government, with it's focus on economic growth and development, is not conducive to this type of regulation, maybe there's another way. There must be a way to balance tourism, economy, people's livelihoods and the environment. I think we as people, whether we are tourists or locals, should take responsibility for ourselves and take care of our environment. The environment we habitate even if it's for a vacation should be kept clean and be respected. The earth is our home after all, right?

Chloe Ginsburg said...

Having visited Koh Phi Phi, I was also taken aback by the vast amounts of trash along the beach, the oil floating near the boats, and the overall difficulty in finding that “pristine wonder” of a beach that we all hope to find along the coast of Thailand, or any other tropical paradise. Like Kayla and Melanie, I’m unsure whether or not it would be realistic to limit foreign visitors to a recreational hotspot such as Koh Phi Phi. However, one example of an ecotourist site where this approach has been hailed as one of the most successful in Africa is Volcanoes National Park in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda, where less than 500 visitors per year are allowed to enter to view the mountain gorilla population there. This approach keeps the forest a relatively pure environment for the wildlife, and helps the local economy. However, there is a real issue in that the prices of these passes are extremely high.

Kaitlin Reed said...

I also agree that there should be some amount of restriction to the amount of visitors to the Islands at one time. I have not yet been to Koh Phi Phi, but on my excursions to other islands in the past I noticed a lot of the same things. Trash everywhere, boats constantly pulling in and out, tourists to the amount you couldn’t find even find a space to sit near your friends let alone peacefully swim and explore with them. We were taken snorkeling in an area where the water was so clear we could see straight to the bottom. The reef was untouched by pollution, the fish happily swimming and the sea turtles friendly enough to swim up to you and let you hug them and pull you around. But then, our boat emptied the used toilet paper into the water from the boat hole, sending it all through the water, sticking it to the reef and making the fish swim for cover. I had never been so appalled. People here need to learn how to proper dispose of waste, not just dump it into the water without thinking of any consequences.

Obat Kanker Payudara said...

So I guess you can imagine how much of its charm was lost when the entire shoreline was littered with a spattering of speedboats and partying tourists. Tourists are not allowed to live on this island, supposedly in the interest of the local trade on Swiftlet nests than of actual conservation efforts. Either way, the numbers in which they are boated into the bay must offset any environmental value gained from not allowing them to stay. I agree that the number of tourists allowed to visit the islands should be severely limited. I hope the Thai government realizes how fragile these islands are before its too late.

Kenny Strauss said...

My name is Kenny and I am a student in the CIEE Service Learning program in Santiago, Dominican Republic. I loved reading your article! We have the same problem here too. We were fortunate enough to be able to visit a beach called Bahía de las Aguilas (Bay of the Eagles). This beach is 100% government protected meaning that no one is allowed to live there or establish businesses there, not even the government or out of the country businesses. It is probably one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen! With that being said, a lot of the beaches here have the problem with too many people and trash everywhere. I did like your idea about regulating the number of people that can come into the country. The only thing I had a problem with, with this idea, is the following two questions. 1. How many people could the country let in without hurting the economy? 2. How does the country decide who gets to come in and who doesn’t? Keep up the good work in Thailand! I bet you are all ready to go home because I know we sure are!

Kate Shafer said...

Like Kenny, I am a service-learning student in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic. While I agree that a virgin beach such as Bahía de las Aguilas is an ideal situation, it seems to not be an option in Thailand. The Dominican Republic, however, also has a fair share of infrastructural challenges when it comes to environmental maintenance and trash collection. For a variety of business, cultural, infrastructural and economic reasons, many cities and small towns in the Dominican Republic share Koh Phi Phi Don’s issue of poor environmental management. Before implementing a potentially economically detrimental plan such as controlling the number of visitors, however, I would suggest attacking the problems themselves. Implementing local ordinances to regulate the building of and actions of local businesses, the environmental impact of boats, etc. would be a way to keep the local economy strong and improve the environmental impact that such businesses and boats may be having. As far as the trash goes, implementing and enforcing a fine for littering would both help the local economy and begin the process of cleaning up what sounds like a gorgeous beach with incredible potential.