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The True Meaning Of Tourist Trap

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  • Potter at Island Resources
    [An excellent article/opinion piece from Sunday s Washington Post which uses the tragedy of the recent tsunami on Phi Phi Don
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 9, 2005
      [An excellent article/opinion piece from Sunday's
      Washington Post <http://www.washingtonpost.com>
      which uses the tragedy of the recent tsunami on
      Phi Phi Don island in Thailand to call for
      moderation in the "rush to develop" that has been
      ISLANDS, dating at least from John D. MacDonald's
      "Condominium," a novel written to protest
      development on Siesta Key in Florida in the
      mid-20th century. bp]


      The True Meaning Of Tourist Trap

      By Joshua Kurlantzick

      Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page B01

      When the tsunami struck on Sunday Dec. 26, I was
      in Bangkok, and as news emerged I rushed to the
      nearest television in a mall, crowding around it
      alongside distraught Thais. Later that day, I
      watched images of families searching for babies
      amid piles of bodies, and saw places where entire
      schools had been washed away into the sea. Many
      Thais around me were inconsolable, weeping -- a
      shock to me, because Thailand is a society where
      people rarely express their emotions openly.

      Soon, amidst confusing and sometimes conflicting
      initial reports about the tsunami, we learned
      that the devastation was far from evenly
      distributed in Thailand. The deep south of
      Thailand was virtually unscathed; the tourist
      areas near the large island of Ko Lanta sustained
      only minor wounds. But Phuket was hit hard and
      the Phi Phi island chain, made famous as the
      setting for the Leonardo DiCaprio film "The
      Beach," had been utterly wrecked, with only a few
      buildings left standing. Television reporters
      mourned the destruction of Phi Phi, portraying it
      as an idyll.

      I knew different. And therein lies a partial
      explanation for the enormity of the tsunami
      tragedy, as well as a reiteration of a familiar
      warning for those living on other "idyllic"

      I first visited the Phi Phi islands in the fall
      of 1998. Living in congested, polluted, noisy
      Bangkok, I flew down to the beach for a respite.
      Setting off in a small boat for the main island
      of Phi Phi Don, I eagerly anticipated white sand
      beaches, warm water and solitude.

      Solitude, though, was not what the islands had to
      offer. As the longtail boat approached the main
      dock, we saw that developers had built dozens of
      squat guesthouses and small hotels all along the
      main beaches with little planning. The places
      were jammed so close to each other -- and to the
      beach -- that it was often unclear where one tiny
      resort ended and the next began. Phi Phi Don's
      main street was similarly crowded; shops selling
      fiery local whiskey, phat thai, dreadlocks and
      other local necessities were built almost on top
      of each other. Behind the shops were tiny
      dwellings housing local workers. At night, Phi
      Phi Don's crowded spaces made the island so noisy
      it was often hard to sleep.

      When I returned to Bangkok, only marginally
      refreshed, I learned more about Thailand's
      tourism industry, and realized Phi Phi Don was
      too typical. Over the past three decades, as
      Thailand had developed from a R&R getaway for
      American GIs in Vietnam to one of the world's
      leading tourist destinations, the Bangkok
      government had aggressively promoted tourism,
      developing innovative overseas ad campaigns, such
      as the successful 1990s "Amazing Thailand"
      campaign in the United States and Europe.

      The tourism industry developed cachet in
      Thailand. Unlike in the United States, where the
      best and brightest graduates of elite
      universities go into government, high finance or
      other professions, many of my smartest Thai
      friends aspired to run hotels, or work on Thai
      Airways, or build their own resorts.

      To some extent, the Thai policies succeeded. From
      under 2 million tourists in 1980, Thailand
      attracted nearly 12 million in 2004. Tourism
      became the largest source of foreign exchange;
      Thailand was breathlessly profiled in travel
      magazines; and the country's hotels, tour
      operators and airlines became world-class. The
      travel industry became even more important after
      the 1997 Asian financial crisis devalued the Thai
      currency by half, boosting the value of incoming
      U.S. dollars, euros and yen.

      Europeans in particular gravitated to the
      kingdom, accessible via direct flights from
      London and Frankfurt, a much shorter trip than
      from the United States, where sun worshipers
      prefer the Caribbean, Florida or Hawaii. In 2003,
      nearly 400,000 people from Germany alone visited
      Thailand. German beer gardens and Scandinavian
      bakeries sprang up on Phuket and other islands,
      serving lagers and nutty brown bread along with
      recent issues of Die Zeit and the Daily Mail.
      When I visited Pattaya, a beach resort in eastern
      Thailand particularly popular with Russians,
      Britons and Germans, I would enjoy schnitzel
      along with my tom yam soup while watching
      imported white-blonde Russian prostitutes troll
      for clients along the main road.

      At the same time, the Thai government imposed too
      few controls on tourism development; there were
      haphazard zoning rules for construction, and some
      land development allegedly enriched key
      politicians. Developers built on one island after
      the next: Phuket, Phi Phi, Koh Samui, the
      builders creeping ever south. Though a few Thai
      journalists and environmental organizations
      warned that this unregulated construction could
      have dire effects, they were largely ignored.

      On Dec. 26, Thailand paid the price for its
      mismanagement and disregard for the dangers of
      coastal development. The death toll in the Phang
      Nga area, which includes the islands of Phi Phi,
      was nearly 3,700 as of early last week. I headed
      south, where I found the situation unbearable.
      Since Phuket was so popular with Europeans, they
      took much of the hit. Thousands of Scandinavians
      were initially reported dead or missing, in
      perhaps the worst disaster ever for those
      nations. At Bangkok's airport, Scandinavian
      diplomats frantically searched every flight
      arriving from southern Thailand, begging for any
      information about survivors and people missing.

      The tsunami's devastation was in some ways
      unavoidable. Though the Thai government had about
      an hour's warning of the possibility of a tsunami
      after the initial earthquake, even those crucial
      60 minutes would not have saved everyone. Even
      with the best protection, the sheer force of the
      waves would have devastated large regions of the
      Thai coast.

      But the devastation did not have to be so
      horrific. Over the past three decades, as tourism
      had developed, construction along Thai beaches
      had destroyed natural mangrove forests and coral
      reefs off the coast. (Across Asia, mangroves are
      also cut down to build shrimp and fish farms.)
      Last summer, for example, the developers of a new
      resort on Ko Yao Noi, an island south of Phuket,
      were accused in the Thai press of removing large
      stocks of coral around the island. Similarly,
      last September, the Nation, the leading Thai
      newspaper, reported that Thailand's Department of
      Marine and Coastal Resources had found that
      almost half the coral reefs around Phuket had
      been wrecked. Previously, a study by Thailand's
      Kasetsart University had found that mangrove
      forest cover had fallen by half between 1961 and

      These reefs and forests serve as natural barriers
      against the tides and could have helped block the
      deadly waves, though they wouldn't have stopped
      them. Mangroves in particular help stop coastal
      erosion, keeping barriers against the sea in

      Meanwhile, as Thailand's travel industry
      exploded, local populations in the south have
      moved closer to the beach resorts, and migrants
      from impoverished parts of the country have
      traveled to resort towns searching for jobs.
      Phuket's population more than doubled since the
      early 1970s to about 240,000, and beachfront
      towns were overrun with hastily built apartments
      and shops. Krabi, another resort area, saw the
      population of its main town grow by more than 25
      percent between 2000 and 2004, to 29,000. Had the
      tsunami struck five decades ago, when Phuket and
      other islands were sparsely populated, and most
      locals lived in Phuket city, well away from the
      beach areas, the casualties would have been much

      Thailand is hardly unique. Across developing
      Asia, population density has increased
      exponentially in areas close to the water, due to
      the growing travel industry and to migration away
      from farms to coastal manufacturing and urban
      centers. This trend will continue; the
      demographic research group Population Reference
      Bureau estimates that the number of people in the
      world living within 125 miles of a coast will
      double by 2020. In many of these areas, land use
      regulations and property zoning are weak, making
      it more likely that any waterborne disaster will
      kill thousands.

      It is too late to prevent the migration of
      millions to coastal cities and towns in Asia and
      other parts of the developing world. But in
      Thailand, some government officials have called
      for a reevaluation of tourism planning in Phuket
      and other islands, vowing that the rebuilding of
      hotels and other facilities will take into
      account the impact on local ecology. In parts of
      Aceh in Indonesia, like the provincial capital of
      Meulaboh, residents are considering relocating to
      higher ground. In India, the government has
      called for a comprehensive reevaluation of the
      country's coastal management policies. Other
      nations may be prompted to do the same. Then, at
      least, some hope would come from horror.

      Joshua Kurlantzick is foreign editor of the New
      Republic. From 1998 to 2001, he covered Southeast
      Asia for the Economist and other publications.

      © 2005 The Washington Post Company

      [Ironically, in the electronic version of this
      article, the Google robot provides links to
      subjects discussed in the article --- copied
      below --- in this case, providing links to Phi
      Phi resorts that may no longer exist . . . bp]

      >Advertising Links by Google
      >Phi Phi Island Village
      >A 4 star resort on Phi Phi Island with white powdery private beach
      >Stay Longer in Phi Phi
      >Long holidays, winter escapes, reduced rates for hotel & apartment
      >Phi Phi Island Village
      >This guide offers discount rates for the Phi Phi Island Village

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