The Earth’s capacity to rejuvenate itself is nothing short of miraculous. For years now, countries where natural beauty is the main attraction have seen their environment literally trampled under the feet of an increasing throng of tourists. Where there were once concerns that the damage would be irreparable, after only one year of (nearly) global lockdowns enforced by the Covid-19 crisis, it appears that Mother Nature is making a comeback.
Nowhere is this more true than Phuket, Thailand – the island called the Jewel of the Andaman Sea – which has experienced an incredible resurgence in flora, fauna and wildlife. The island is preparing to reopen to foreign tourists on 1 July 2021, but what will the long-term future of tourism look like for Phuket and for its environment?
Calls for more sustainable, eco-friendly tourism are nothing new, and in the last decade they only grew louder. Then came a global pandemic. While we all stayed home, the earth was given a breather, and the disruption to people’s lives proved to be a welcome respite for the environment. Very seldom are the benefits of proactive efforts to protect the environment so immediately visible and tangible, and this ecological rejuvenation has led to renewed demands for a complete rethink of the global mass tourism industry.
The tourism industry in Thailand has certainly suffered as a result of the pandemic, nowhere more so than Phuket – the jewel in the crown of Thai Tourism. Domestic travel, which has largely been unrestricted during the last 12 months, was not enough make up the slack, and once thriving business have closed their doors. Even with the prospect of vaccines and herd immunity right around the corner, there are many rental properties and Phuket hotels for sale. When holiday makers do return to the beaches, what will the tourism look like?
Before examining the future, let us first look at the recent past. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), international tourism arrivals dropped off a staggering 87% for January, compared with the same month in 2020. The figures for Asia-Pacific are even worse, with a reduction of 96% during the same time period.
January is Thailand’s busiest month for tourism, and the UNWTO numbers offer a clear indication of how this pandemic is affecting economy. Depending on whose figures you read, tourism accounts for between 20% and 30% of Thailand’s Gross Domestic Product. But while Bangkok (the capital city) boasts a diverse range of industries, the tropical island paradise of Phuket is almost entirely dependent on its tourist sector.
Every resident knows how devastating the lack of visitors has been for the island, and people are desperate for their lives to return to normal. But in the midst of this major upheaval for its people, there have been green shoots for the island itself – quite literally.
In addition to the beaches, Phuket is a popular destination for spas offering detoxification programs. While these have been closed for the most part, the island has enjoyed its own incredible cleansing process, as the flora, fauna, seas and wildlife have flourished in the absence of 15 million tourists.
One of nature’s most notable (and noticeable) success stories has been the rejuvenated turtle population. After decades of water sports and sunbathers keeping turtles away from most of Phuket’s beaches, some beaches had managed nevertheless to remain popular nesting spots for sea turtles. In the last 15 months, however, more turtles have returned to those beaches than at any time in over 20 years.
Even more remarkable is the nesting activity on those Phuket beaches which turtles had seemingly abandoned: our amniote friends are laying eggs there for the first time most residents can remember. Both green turtles and the magnificent leatherback turtles have returned to beaches normally packed with tourists.
Prior to the pandemic, regulations had already been put in place to slow down over-fishing in the Andaman region, but the lack of tourists and closure of restaurants has reduced fishing much further than any regulation ever could. This is obviously wonderful news for the ecosystem, and there is clear evidence that reduced fishing has had its desired effect.
Smaller fish and plankton are the source of food to larger fish, which have been seen venturing closer to Phuket’s shores. It is now commonplace to see black tipped reef sharks and leopard sharks in popular dive sites close to Phuket Island. For decades any divers who wanted to see a whale shark had to venture well to the north, such as the popular Similan Islands some 120km from Phuket, but even whale sharks have been spotted off Phuket’s west coast.
Dolphins are also being seen closer to the shore and in larger numbers. On the other side of Phang Nga Bay, around 85 miles to the east of Phuket in Trang Province, herds of Dugong (a relative of the Manatee) have been spotted.
Visitors during the high season have always been mesmerised by the multitude of speed and dive boats moored in Phuket’s picturesque coves and bays. In the absence of the noise and activity caused by these craft, it is understandable why marine animals are once again venturing so close to shore. Even the shallows and the beaches seem to be renewing, as large populations of hermit crabs, star fish and sea horses are being reported. Residents have attested to much better snorkelling conditions around the island, and visibility for divers has also markedly improved.
But it is not only in the sea where these changes are being recorded. In the hills and central mountains monitor lizards are thriving, as are land crabs, and civet cats. There have even been sightings of the elusive and nocturnal slow loris.
While there are countless visible benefits of nature’s re-set, there have also been some victims which have gone unnoticed. Countless monkeys on the island have long relied on humans for food, and will be suffering due to their failure to develop innate foraging skills. Furthermore, those who care for the hundreds of elephants living on Phuket (many used for rides or shows), are struggling to feed these beautiful creatures without the admission fees and donations of generous holiday makers.
Like the elephants, the people of Phuket cannot survive on zero tourism, but will the island be at the vanguard in reimagining the global tourist industry? Most countries are eager to expand their tourist industries, understanding the increased local employment opportunities and rising living standards which tourism can offer. Unfortunately, the air, water and land often pays the price for said progress.
The term “extractive tourism” was coined by Vijay Kolinjivadi, an academic who believes that the financial compensation paid to the local population of many areas around the world is completely out of sync with the accompanying destructive forces of tourism. According to Kolinjivadi, both the well-being of locals and the ethics within the industry are compromised for the sake of profits.
Unfortunately, Thailand is often used as an example to illustrate extractive tourism, but this was not always the case.
Tourism once had a different feel to it throughout Thailand. Travel was once the domain of the ultra-wealthy, and visitors to Thailand were no different. They stayed in luxurious 5-star hotels or luxury villas, ate at the finest restaurants, and injected a lot of money into the local community.
The 1970s was the start of large-scale backpacking around the world. Traveling on a tight budget, these mostly young people spent months exploring the isolated islands and dense jungles of Southeast Asia. They moved from country to country, stayed in modest accommodation, but they would spend a few thousand Dollars in their travels.
Neither class of tourist were really hurting the environment. In reality they probably added far more to the local communities than they ever took.
Over the last decade, however, the Phuket tourist industry has changed dramatically. Phuket has been the victim of its own success, as guidebook popularity (and films like The Beach) brought multiple millions of tourists to the island.
But when plane loads of people arrive on cheap budget holidays - paid in full in their home countries, and in some cases bringing zero economic benefit to the local economy – it is easy to understand why activists are calling for an end to extractive tourism.
Re-imagining tourism must be the way forward, but it is difficult to know how we can find the optimal equilibrium between profit and conservation.
Perhaps the Phuket hospitality sector will seize this opportunity to re-fashion tourism according to a more eco-friendly model. For that to happen, tour operators, cruise ships, hotels, as well as local communities must be willing to adapt their business models to focus on sustainability, while at the same time reducing the human cost of reduced tourism.
Backpacking for adventurous teenagers will likely live on (certainly in Thailand), and the 5-star hotel and luxury villa markets are guaranteed to survive. But a business model in which millions of tourists are stuffed into small cheap hotel units – buildings which themselves are spoiling the local environment – will surely be a thing of the past in an eco-friendly tourist industry.
The environmental renewal we have witnessed is great news for conservationists, and a powerful argument for a greener brand of tourism. While questions will persist about the sustainability of mass air travel in the context of CO2 emissions and climate change, there is no longer any doubt that both marine and terrestrial habitats are still capable of healing themselves. Not only that, but they have displayed this ability in a remarkably short period of time.
Paradigm shifts usually occur when they are needed most, and when they finally do, perhaps they are long overdue. If we are to enter a new age in tourism, with a focus on sustainability and not on extraction, tourism may initially devolve into the more two-tiered system of a few of decades ago – the wealthy and the backpackers - before settling into a “new normal”.
But if the local population of Phuket is able to benefit from tourist dollars while ensuring that areas of natural beauty are conserved, then future generations from all walks of life will be able to enjoy this special island for decades to come.