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Tourism ‘De-tour’

It is a classic case of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Last April 26, 2018, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte closed the world famous Boracay Island for six months. Calling it a ‘cesspool’, the closure was meant to rehabilitate the island after decades of unregulated tourism activities resulted to pollution and destruction of the ecosystem. The closure was meant to check on the violations of business establishments in the island which contributed to its present dismal condition. Green algae, an indication of contaminated water, is visible along the white-sand beach. It turned out most of the business establishments were not connected with the sewage system and were discharging untreated waste water directly into the sea. Many structures were also built within restricted areas contributing to the destruction of the fragile ecosystem. Uncollected garbage were also evident as the waste management system cannot cope with the volume of trash especially during peak season.

People come to the beach to enjoy pristine water, the sun and breeze. Entrepreneurs supply the needs of these people to be comfortable in the beach with accommodation, food and other amenities. But as more people come to the beach, greed takes over and the prudence is thrown out of the window, even to the point of destroying the very reason why people come to the place. The closure would mean no tourists will be allowed in the island for a period of six months. This will allow rehabilitation and remedial measures. The tourism sector is affected, more so the more than 30,000 families dependent on the island for livelihood.

The ‘dark side’ of tourism

Environmental disaster results when an area is utilized beyond its capacity limiting the period to restore and rehabilitate. Tourist areas banking on natural resources are prone to destruction when not managed and regulated well. It is not only in the Philippines, but globally, there are tourist areas that are overdeveloped and are utilized beyond its absorptive capacity. Mass tourism has greatly contributed to economies of many countries, but it has also contributed to the destruction and deterioration of fragile ecosystems of tourist areas. Great places endorsed in travel blogs and review sites will surely be swamped with visitors in just a short time. Improved transport infrastructure and the proliferation of low cost carriers enable more people to travel fast and cheap. British news network BBC has documented several popular areas that has adopted a policy of closing and regulating the number of visitors to protect the place. One of such place was Maya Beach in Kho Phi Phi, Thailand. The government of Thailand decided to close the place for four months this year. An average of 5,000 tourists visit the place and became a burden to the place. It became popular when it was shared that the place was featured in the Leonardo di Caprio flm The Beach. The Cinque Terre in Italy is a picturesque hillside town which receives more than two million visitors every year. Garbage and nuisance were the main concerns for the small town overloaded with tourists. It is the same with the Macchu Pichu ruins in Peru where campsites along the way destroy the forest and vegetation, while pile of garbage from irresponsible visitors marred the picturesque place. Jeju Island in South Korea has to contend against traffc jams and garbage as tourists swarm on the area brought by cruise ships docking on the island. In Cano Cristales in Colombia, rules were set to ban plastic bottles, cigarettes and prevented swimming in certain areas.

The challenge for Myanmar

For Myanmar, the influx of tourists started with the opening of the country in 2011. To cope with the infux of visitors, the government developed a Tourism Master Plan in 2012 providing for the direction of the tourism sector until 2020. The master plan has three main strategies: promotion of communitybased tourism, development of human resources in the tourism industry and developing selected destinations.

Six years after the introduction of the plan, the country registered more than 2 million visitors a year. Private investments have also poured in the development of facilities in selected areas frequented by visitors including temples, beaches and other places of interest. Businesses related to tourism sprouted like mushroom to include hotels, restaurants, travel agencies, tour organizers, handicrafts producers and souvenir shops. One of the rapidly developing sectors, many people now depended on tourismrelated businesses. Any downturn in the sector would mean negative impact on the economic condition of the people. As early as this time however, the trend in Myanmar is pointing to the same direction encountered by other tourist areas. The prospect of the Myanmar falling into the same trap is a possibility. A peak from the most popular tourist spots in Myanmar reveals a swelling problem.

One of the top beaches in Southeast Asia, the rating of Ngapali Beach was downgraded by TripAdvisor as problems become more evident. Garbage scattered not only on the beach but in areas around it creates an image of polluted environment. The rapid increase in the number of tourists likewise increase the formal establishments as well as the informal ones creating the garbage problem.

At Inle Lake, the upsurge in the number of tourists also increased the number of motorboats going to and from the foating villages. The traffc of motorboats are gradually affecting the delicate ecosystem of the lake not to mention the noise generated by the boats. Garbage particularly plastic bottles and wrappers are now seen foating in some parts of the lake. The temples of Bagan is among the most visited places in Myanmar. A wide expanse of nothing but temples constructed in different times by different groups is a rich cultural heritage for Myanmar and the Buddhist religion. But it was not spared from the vagaries of business. Hotels and other establishments were built too close to the old structures encroaching on the restricted areas set aside to protect the place. Worse, there were buildings constructed even without the necessary permit.

Learning from the lessons

As early as this time, there are those who are bent on putting business interests over and above the protection of cultural heritage of the country. Their interest is on the immediate profts that will be generated and not on the preservation of the natural diversity nor the cultural character of an area. These people will eventually be the killers of the goose in the future.

Generating income from places of interest is not bad. But the business model should be focused on the protection of the ecosystems and the cultural integrity of the places so that it can be enjoyed by many generations in its pristine and unaltered states. Sustainability is the word. It means preserving the place and at the same time generating income from people who are interested in it.

In this context all the stakeholders should be involved in managing tourist areas. Many people with livelihoods dependent on tourist-related activities and places should be involved as they will be the frst to be affected. The future of tourist places of interest cannot be left alone in the hands of government agencies and the business sector. A more inclusive and participatory process should be employed to make sure that the places are protected.