I have an absolute love affair with travelling the world. The amazing things I’ve been privileged to see and experience as I travel around the world are the source of some of my best memories. I used to preach that travelling is good for the soul, that it makes you a better person; how travelling pushes your boundaries, broadens your view on the world, betters your understanding of the complexity of mankind, opens your eyes, and changes you forever. But recently, my eyes have been wide open and I’m not loving what I see.
I’m not sure the exact moment I seriously started to question travelling. I’ve previously been dubious of certain aspects of tourism and horrified by some of the consequences; but in my mind, they were always minor compared to the upsides of travelling. The first time I was so horrified by the impact of mankind (not specifically tourists) on the environment that I had to leave the country was in India. I couldn’t take it and it prompted me to write “Overwhelmed by India.”
More recently, I feel like I was overwhelmed by Thailand. The day we arrived in Koh Lipe, Thailand is around the time everything changed. The events that followed, compounded by the fact I had been simultaneously researching the controversial effects of tourism in the Philippine’s, specifically with regards to the whale sharks in Osbo, changed my views on travelling the world. Now, let’s not go rushing to any conclusions – I’m not suddenly jumping on a plane to fly home. But I do plan to be even more conscious of my role as a traveller and additionally start being careful where I choose to go and not to go – I doubt I will be back in Koh Lipe any time soon, and I definitely won’t be visiting Osbo while traveling the Philippines (even though it would be a dream come true to swim with Whale Sharks).
Before I go any further with the overtly controversial notion that travelling is bad for the world, let me explain what actually happened.
It’s first worth pointing out that Koh Lipe is an idyllic paradise and one of the most beautiful places on earth. Everything from the dazzling white-sand beaches to the crystal-clear water is more picturesque than any other Thai Island. It is also by no means the worst place I have been with respect to the effects of tourism; however, on arrival I think I sort of hit a tipping point.
We paid for a van/speedboat combo from Koh Lanta to Koh Lipe. We were to leave at 8:00 AM and arrive at 15:00 PM. A long day, but anticipated and expected. Our van driver drove like a complete maniac. The way he shifted gears at the last possible second, took corners so fast he crossed three lanes just not to flip, passed on blind corners and flew over bumps in the road scared the shit out of me. Half way through the journey over land we were shuffled into a different van. While this driver wasn’t quite as careless he still drove like he was in a rush to get us somewhere… I kept thinking we were running late and he didn’t want us to miss our boat. Upon arrival in the small town where we were to catch our speedboat, the driver dropped us off and quickly left. The lady whose shop we were dropped off at informed us we had a three hour wait before our boat which left at 15:30 arriving at 17:00. That’s right, our drivers drove as fast as possible just so we could sit in a dirty, small town in the middle of nowhere in the scorching heat for three hours. And the greedy person who sold us the ticket out-right lied to make the sale (we would have spent the extra money to purchase a direct speed boat had we known the truth). The boat leaves at the same time every day (signs were posted everywhere). Since we’d already been passed over multiple times and it’s not like we could go back to Koh Lanta and speak with the operator who sold us the ticket; we just had to accept we’d been lied to yet again.
My frustration disappeared the second I laid eyes on the majestic Koh Lipe, a small island off the Andaman Coast of Southern Thailand. And then reappeared less than one minute later when our speedboat dropped us off at a floating dock about 100m from shore. Once all of the passengers and luggage were offloaded, the speedboat docked on shore (the same shore we wanted to be on). Instead of shuttling us to shore with the speedboat we had already paid for, we were left stranded on a dock forced to pay 50 THB ($1.5 USD) to an operator who in turn fed us on to a fleet of waiting long tail boats. I suppose everyone needs their cut of the money, no matter how small, but what an incredible waste of fuel, time and energy. Not to mention a hazard to snorkelers and swimmers due to the fact that the careless longtail drivers pull up wherever they feel like on the beach, often getting within an arm’s reach of people in the water.
The other point in unloading us where we couldn’t escape was to ensure we paid the 200 THB ($5.5 USD) entry fee for Tarautao National Park. The only problem I have with that is the only reason development is allowed on Koh Lipe is because it is outside of the jurisdiction of the National Park (and thus except from the laws prohibiting development).
Koh Lipe is located 67km from the mainland of Thailand in the far southwest, only 60km from the Malaysian island of Langkawi. Lipe is both one of the furthest south and smallest of Thailand’s populated islands. I had read that Koh Lipe was still considered “off the beaten path” and more laid back with an almost hippie vibe. Maybe 10 years ago, maybe two years ago, I really don’t know – but not anymore. That statement couldn’t be farther from the truth. The island was crawling with tourists, more densely so than Railay beach or Koh Tao. At night, ‘Walking Street’ was packed with tourists and every restaurant was full. In recent years Lipe has experienced rapid development to face the increasing tourist demand. The majority of tourists are European along with an increasing number of Thais, Malaysians and Singaporeans. I could find very little information on how many tourists visit the island each year but as of 2015, there were over 100 resorts on the island, all of which are usually sold-out during high season and new developments are in the works all over the island. The only thing that reflected how remote the island is was the prices. Our “Eco-Lodge” accommodation was probably the worst price to quality ratio on a room we’ve ever paid. Additionally, at 7-Eleven everything was double the price as on any of the other islands.
Like many small islands around the world, Lipe has waste disposal and water shortage problems. As explained by the sign on our bedroom door, in the rainy season the island relies mainly on rain water for water supply. In the dry season (when we visited), water supply comes from the ground water. That doesn’t sound that bad, right? Wrong, when compounded with the fact that there is no proper sewage system on the island, it is very wrong. All of the islands waste water either returns to the ground or is sent directly into the sea without proper filtration. The sign went on to explain that most resorts use bottomless pits for their waste water so that it runs straight into the ground without any kind of filtration. Let’s just say I didn’t use the tap water to brush my teeth.
As for waste, the island at least shows signs of possible attempts to recycle – there were actually recycling bins on ‘Walking Street;’ however, every garbage and recycling bin I opened were filled with a mixture of trash and recyclables. I have a feeling not much actually gets recycled… Moreover, the beaches are littered with garbage and covered in cigarette butts.
Here’s another thing that really erked me about Koh Lipe, and honestly, the Thai Islands in general. The most expensive item on the dinner menus was always seafood. That’s right, locally caught and grilled fish or prawns cost more than anything else. At a cheap street-food style diner where you can get a chicken Pad Thai for 70 THB, a grilled fish (served whole) goes for around 350 THB and that’s the cheapest seafood on the island. For the same price as the cheapest locally-caught fish we could have had a deluxe burger made from imported Australian beef with a side salad and home-made fries (we didn’t). Needless to say, our entire time in the Thai Islands, Dan and I never ate fish. Instead, on Koh Lipe we lunched on pizza topped with imported ingredients and cooked in a wood-fire stove for less than ¼ of the price of fish. I must be joking, right? Nope. Locals know that tourists visit the Thai Islands dreaming of eating freshly caught fish and they price it accordingly.
The last Koh Lipe-related incident that drew my attention to the negative effects of travel happened when we ordered Pad Thai at a street-stall-style restaurant on Walking Street, a 600-metre stretch that connects Sunrise and Pattaya beaches. While there was a kitchen in the back, it was empty and I noticed the server walkie-talkie our order in – I guessed that our meal was being made elsewhere. A short while later, a man on a scooter (why they even have scooters – and plenty of them – on ‘Walking Street’ which takes less than 10 minutes to walk the entire way is whole other issue) arrived and handed our server two plastic bags of food. Our server proceeded to dump each bag onto a plate, added some garnishing and served us our dinner. If the server knew what shock looked like and/or had bothered to look me in the face, he would have seen how horrified I was. But he wouldn’t have recognized my horror because this is a completely natural course of events to him and the idea of wasting two plastic bags on our meal would mean nothing to him.
Unfortunately, on any island as remote and small as Lipe, popularity comes at the price of gouged prices, hasty development, environmental degradation, and increasingly greedy and careless people (both locals and foreigners).
And these issues are in no way restricted to Koh Lipe, they are some of the major issues we’ve experienced all over the world, notably in developing or recently developed nations. Now that I’ve explained the backstory to what prompted me to rethink travel (and write this post), let’s broaden the picture to look at memories and encounters from our entire time travelling over the past year. Because if there’s one thing that ties every developing country in Latin America, Europe and Asia together it’s the site of litter and garbage – everywhere.
In Central America I distinctly remember finishing a snack on a chicken-bus travelling between two cities and holding onto my trash as there was nowhere else to put it. Locals started to give me strange looks, even stranger when I asked if there was a garbage bin when the bus stopped for a break. They pointed to the open windows. “Throw it out there.” Much of the developing world literally looks like an early-stage landfill. If you look past the storefronts and resorts, into people’s backyards, even the backyards of restaurants and hotels, or at the shanty towns that lie outside the city centre the ground is covered in litter. The people living there are indifferent to it. They don’t understand (or care for) the impact it has. It’s incredibly sad to watch locals destroying the very thing that draws tourists to their home country – the land, the ocean, the mountains, the wildlife.
While I admit that the locals are by far the worst contributors to the massive garbage and litter problem around the world in developing countries, tourists and travelers aren’t helping. In Thailand (actually all of Southeast Asia and Latin America), everything comes in a plastic bag; literally, everything. If you order a drink to go, it’s poured into a to-go cup which is then placed in a plastic bag. This completely unnecessary act is mind-boggling to the Western-mind but standard practice in much of the world. I was sitting at an ocean front restaurant on Koh Lanta when a plastic bag floated by; the table next to me joked “look, another tropical fish.” The truth is, garbage in the ocean is becoming almost as popular as the fish.
Regardless of how careful I try to be, how many plastic bags I try to say no to (“try” because often they hand you the bag anyways), as a traveller I create exponentially more garbage than I do when living at home. It’s everything from buying in smaller quantities (I can’t very well carry around 1L of shampoo) to eating way more pre-packaged snacks to drinking bottled water. It’s also the simple fact that at home I avidly recycle everything and compost organic waste (which is now mandatory in Vancouver!). At home, it’s common practice to ask if you need a receipt and my usual answer is “no”; in most of Southeast Asia it’s illegal for the vendor to not provide you with an itemized receipt. It’s the little bars of soap that hotels throw out with each new customer. Dan and I do what we can; for instance, we carry a ‘kitchen-in-a-box’ with many of the cooking necessities instead of re-purchasing cooking oil and sauces in every new city. We also carry decently sized toiletries which we share instead of going through mini-bottles every week.
It’s the fact that tap water isn’t safe to drink (especially not for my incredibly weak stomach) in most of the countries we’ve travelled to. And in some places, it’s so unsafe (or unsanitary), I don’t even use tap water to brush my teeth (case and point, Koh Lipe – or anywhere in India). I’m incredibly thankful we carry a SteriPEN (a handheld UV water purifier) to sanitize water because I think it would actually kill me to have to use bottled water to brush my teeth, the thought alone makes me cringe. But the SteriPEN doesn’t help at all with taste, and thus we often end up buying water to drink (although we always try to buy the largest practical sized bottle).
Out of interest, while writing this post, I did a bit of research on bottled water and was surprised by what I found. My first assumption was that most of world’s bottled water is consumed in developing countries where the water is unsafe. Wrong, Americans use about 30-50 BILLION bottles of water a year (that’s over 1500 bottles every second), with a recycling rate of somewhere in the neighbourhood of just over 20%. It’s also worth noting that Pepsi’s Aquafina and Coke’s Dasani (24% of the bottled water market in the US) is literally bottled and purified municipal tap water. A few European countries do actually beat America when per capita is considered, which is likely due to the popularity of carbonated water in much of Europe. The scariest part? Bottled water is much less popular than soft drinks in the US (but I’m not even going to go there).
I will admit that after learning that the United States consumes almost one quarter of the world’s bottled water (which seems to be a very rough estimate as I couldn’t find many hard facts on this number), I felt a little less terrible about my impact on the world as a traveller. I honestly don’t understand what is wrong with people and thus, would like to take this opportunity to say that, if you are a Canadian, American or European who frequently drinks bottled water, and live in a community where the tap water is safe to drink, you should probably stop reading this blog and go and completely reassess your life choices. It’s also likely you don’t travel, as I can’t think of many seasoned travellers who would even dream of drinking bottled water in their home country (given its safe to drink there). As for bottled water in the developing world, largely due to increased marketing campaigns, sales are rapidly rising in China, Mexico and parts of India. But now I am going off on a tangent. The travel-related issue here is the influx of plastic bottles (as well as cans and glass bottles) to remote areas as a direct result of tourism. The beaches of Koh Lipe are covered in discarded plastic bottles, as are the remote San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama and Little Corn Island in the middle of the Caribbean. And it’s not coming from the locals, many of whom don’t (or previous to tourism didn’t) drink bottled water or sodas.
‘Ruined by tourism’ is a common phrase in the travel-ridden world. The Thai Islands have been ‘ruined by tourism.’ And not just environmentally; the people are forever tainted. The people have become greedy learning how easy it is to scam and rip off tourists. The locals have been taught how to overcharge, how to look someone in the eye with a smile and take as much money as they can get from foreigners. And the argument that ‘we’ – the rich and wealthy tourists – should simply hand over our hard-earned money to them because we are better off, simply isn’t going to work on me. I didn’t scam and lie to earn the money in my pocket, I worked hard to make an honest living. I refuse, on principle alone, to overpay for something that should have a set price. I am not referring to a work of art, or a piece of jewelry where the price is dependent on what it’s worth to the buyer; I am talking about a bottle of water or a ride in a taxi. When I ask for the price of something and someone has to look me up and down, determining how much I will pay for it, instead of quoting the actual price; they are cheating me. Or when a seller knows a tour is worth 600 THB and tries to sell it for 800 or even 900, it’s no different than stealing money from someone’s wallet. Its pure unadulterated greed. And it works both ways, foreigners can be equally as greedy to get the lowest possible price. Most seasoned travellers know to never pay the asking price; on market goods you usually pay about 50% of the asking price, and many travellers go to these countries with the expectation that things will be dirt cheap. Thus, you end up with greed on both sides, constantly working against each other. I yearn for stores back home where items have stickered prices and are sold at face-value or where the taxis actually use meters (that aren’t rigged). I’ve often heard many people refer to bargaining in markets as “fun” once “you’re good at it.” I don’t think it’s fun, I don’t think it’s right and I don’t believe that greed leads anywhere good.
Two years ago when I travelled through Southeast Asia on my own, I wanted to visit Myanmar before it too was “ruined by tourism.” Having recently opened its doors wide open to tourists, I travelled there in early 2014. The virgin country was full of kind people, helpful locals and honest businessmen. The incredibly stark contrast to much of Southeast Asia was a pleasant surprise. Two years later, I don’t know if it’s the same. Land borders have opened with Thailand making it even more accessible and tourism is becoming a thriving industry. The news shows stories of the government forcing ‘squatting’ locals who have lived on the land for as long as they know away from their homes to build more and more resorts and hotels. The crumbling temples and ruins in Bagan won’t survive an influx of tourism. I loved how you had free reign to climb around them but that is exactly what will destroy them. That is where I become part of the problem. The simple fact that I visited there makes me part of the reason more and more tourists will travel to Myanmar. Just landing in the country as a foreigner I became part of a statistic of an increasing number of tourists that encourages the government and other companies to build more resorts, even if those weren’t the places I stayed. It won’t take long for corrupt business practices to out-profit and out-perform the honest ones likely becoming the new standard.
It’s interesting to note the increasing value today’s travellers place on authenticity, first-hand experiences and individual recognition. As quoted from travel writer David Sze: “For the 21-century traveler, authenticity has become the goal and measure of travel.” As such, it’s clear that I am not alone in my selfish desire to see the ‘real’ world; the “less touristy” places. The only problem is, most of the world has already been discovered, remote areas already been targeted as “up and coming tourist destinations” or “hidden gems.” If you visit un-touristy places, you aren’t helping, you’re leading those places to become touristy. The simple fact is, the world has less and less “hidden gems” because everyone is trying to find them, everyone wants to travel where tourists haven’t yet ruined, where they can still find a slice of paradise all to themselves. And even more importantly, to where the infrastructure doesn’t exist to support them. Where locals are exposed to an insane influx in money that leads them to do stupid (yes I said it, ‘stupid’) things with no regard for their home or the environment.”
Not only is travel becoming increasingly accessible and possible for a large portion of the world’s population but with Instagram and other social media in our back pocket, it’s also becoming more desirable. It’s a lot easier to pick your next (or first) destination when you have an Instagram feed full of pictures of remote islands and gorgeous vistas then if you had to schedule a meeting with a travel agent and get a few glances at printed photos. The influx of people is causing the reefs to disappear, turtles and other wildlife to have to find new homes (it’s difficult to lay eggs on a beach frequented by boats and tourists).
To fall back on Koh Lipe as an example, I read that in the early 1990’s, Lipe was merely a whisper between backpackers of an unspoiled island far out in Thailand’s Andaman Sea, barely anyone had heard of the magical spot. Though it’s still incredibly beautiful today, it’s not the same and never will be again because this island, like so many others in the world, cannot sustain the amount of tourism it receives. And I, a traveler, am only adding to that problem.
Of course many of the original backpackers would argue that they lived and traveled simply, living merely off the land and sea as the locals did, staying in huts or tents and didn’t impact the serge of mass tourism. But that’s complete crap. If they told one person or took a single picture, they played a part in bringing Koh Lipe to the world’s attention. Likewise, many travelers may claim that they don’t impact the environment, culture or locals. But they do, and that’s incredibly important to understand (and admit). Every single one of us does. Again, maybe you sleep in a tent on the beach, maybe you drink the local tap water (which I’ve seen some travelers do, even in the sketchiest of places) and eat street food. You’re still part of the problem. On the other end of the spectrum, maybe you are a luxury traveler that stays in the best and most expensive eco-resorts and gives money everywhere without thinking twice. In reality, there are very few truly ecologically friendly and self-sustainable resorts in the world and giving hand-outs to locals isn’t helping them (especially if you’re giving to kids). Regardless, every single traveler is contributing to the problem.
So, do I recommend you travel the world? That is one of the hardest questions to answer. Of course there are better ways to travel (we try, we really do) but the way that much of the world is today, I truly believe there is no sustainable way to travel anymore.
While I see the hypocrisy in the fact that I write a travel blog essentially promoting travel, I now realize that there is a fine line between responsible travel and tourism that has detrimental effects. I understand now the importance of educating yourself before you travel – both in the broad sense and on region-specific topics. More than anything, if you are going to travel it’s important to actually give a shit, to put it frankly. If you don’t care, if you don’t open your eyes, you’re not even going to notice what’s happening right before you, moreover, what you’re causing to happen. Each person, each traveler is ‘just one person’; and collectively, we are the problem. We, as travelers, have to admit and understand we are the problem before we can hope for a better future for travel.