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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - How to save tourism from ruining itself

How to save tourism from ruining itself

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090701_24.jpg

Both developers and tourists should be more responsible to help the regional industry

Trampling all over the local culture? Tourists in Siem Reap. AFP

It's about balance. places need to be developed with more consideration for local sensibilities.

The newspaper USA To-day ran a story recently lamenting some of Southeast Asia's better-known "must sees".

The story picked out Luang Prabang, Pai and Siem Reap as cases in point, but there are many others to choose from - Vang Vieng, Hoi An, Sapa or just about any island in Thailand.

Unfortunately, the author couldn't get much past his own treasured memories of Luang Prabang back in '74, but one doesn't need to have been travelling back then to have noticed huge changes in Asian backpacking destinations - why?

It's a common, and a selfish, refrain: "It was so much better before everyone else found out about it." It seems many want to experience what Gray describes as "a cohesive, authentic, living community" but they certainly don't want to share it - certainly not with 50 tour buses a day. But who is to blame?

Whipping boy

The author brings out one popular whipping boy, ex-Lonely Planet author Joe Cummings, for particular treatment - dreaming of condemning Joe "to eating nothing but banana pancakes and lugging a 500-pound backpack through all eternity". But, really, Joe was just the messenger.

Who he should be lambasting are the authorities who stand by while the transformation takes place. Be it foreigners buying or leasing the traditional buildings, turfing out local charm for lattes and WiFi, or high-impact Asian mass tourism with their tour buses and cookie-cutter hotels along Siem Reap's Airport Road.

The story quotes former UNESCO expert Francis Engelmann as saying: "We have saved Luang Prabang's buildings, but we have lost its soul." While this is probably very true, he nevertheless still lives there.

New locals

Without the interest of the heritage community, more of Luang Prabang's lovely buildings may have seen the wrecking ball, but that shouldn't mean the vast majority of local residences become shops, cafes and restaurants, that locals choose not to live in town anymore and that temples close because the new "locals" don't support the monastery in the same way.

National Geographic travel-guide writer Carl Parkes says: "It's the author of this article who should examine his attitude and opinions, and not the travel writers, who didn't ‘spoil' these untouched paradises, and don't regret that once impoverished regions are now enjoying the benefits of cash flow and tourism."

The issue is that while these "impoverished regions" are undeniably enjoying benefits, much of the money often ends up elsewhere.

Another group could be admonished besides the government and regulatory officials - the tourists. Everyone has a story of ugly tourism. For me it was spotting a female tourist wearing only a g-string as she walked through a Muslim fishing village on Ko Jum. I'm sure you've heard or seen worse.

Joe Cummings repeatedly harped on about how important it is for tourists to conduct themselves in a sensitive manner - yet a significant portion of his readership seemed never to have got the memo. Way too many readers slavishly followed their guide's advice on where to stay, eat and drink, but never bother with the fine print. Is it any surprise that the locals pack up and move out when their streetside breakfast becomes a constant photo shoot?

Responsive industry

Unfortunately tourism is a responsive, rather than a responsible, business, and those who do best are generally the ones who give the punters what they want - be it Internet access on Ko Lipe or iPod downloads in Siem Reap.

These businesses are often the most jarring to the locals' sensibilities, but it's too often where the punters float. Success leads to imitation and before you know it, Pai has been transformed from a charming small Thai town to a melange of bars, travel agents, cafes and, yes, chocolate banana pancake outfits - something I'd never heard of until I got to Thailand.

It's about balance. Places need to be developed with more consideration for local sensibilities. And, as the mistakes in Luang Prabang illustrate, it helps if the locals can be enticed to remain living where they have for generations. This could be greatly assisted by tourists behaving better, reading the small print in their guidebooks - and trying to tread lightly. 

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