It is rather ironic that the day after I get my first publication (in a month In The Know Traveler will be publishing a piece I wrote about hiking Tajumulco) I started to read Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?. Its scandalous title caught my eye two days ago and I am almost finished with the book. While I cannot say I like the book (the author is a chauvinist pig who treats women like disposable sex toys) it does start a discussion about how travel writing is changing the world.
The basic premise of the book is an exposé on the travel writing industry, specifically the author’s first job as a Lonely Planet Brazil guidebook writer. He recounts a plethora of ethically questionable decisions, blackout nights spent drinking on a bar owner’s tab in exchange for favorable reviews, sexcapades that would make any self respecting human cringe, and a quick dip into the international world of drug dealing. The one redeemable part of the book is the discussion of the effect that becoming destinations has on locations around the world.
Kane and I experienced the Lonely Planet effect first hand in Krabi, Thailand. It was my first time in the city, so I couldn’t see what had happened, but I had Kane to tell me what had been. The quirky Thai talent shows at the local market had been pushed out to make space for a Westernized version of a Thai night market, a slightly cleaner, less spicy place filled with more tattooed blondes in skimpy clothing than socially conservative locals. Kane spent a good portion of our time in Krabi reminiscing about what it once was and how it was going down the path of the many over priced tourist hot spots that grace coastlines worldwide. We all know the fate of those old gems that got visited by one too many tourists, were written up in too big of publications, and ended up as depressing tourist ghettos.
The tourist ghetto is a place where culture goes to die, where package tourists can safety enjoy the physical beauty of a place without ever leaving their resort or having to, gasp, talk to a local. Even the physical beauty that once drew the first backpackers to a location begins to suffer under an influx of tourism that is not sustainable, as is unfortunately the case in many destinations in the developing world. Koh Phi Phi is a perfect example of a word class beach turned tourist ghetto. Its beach was the stuff of dreams before one too many full moon parties left the island a shadow of its former self, with tourists more likely to find a pre-owned syringe in the sand than sea shells. I once heard it described as the only place you can see people swimming in, shitting in, and having sex in the same ocean at the same time. Its new nickname is Koh Poo Poo for good reason.
During my time in Thailand I often had the sinking feeling that I was on the tail end of the backpacker scene there. Southeast Asia has become too easy to travel and too well known. With this comes the hordes of mass tourism, the resort vacationers. The resort vacationers change the landscape as huge swaths of beaches are swallowed whole by the multimillion dollar hotels built to house them. The ocean becomes a waste dumping ground if said hotels do not invested in a septic system, opting instead to let our precious waters take the brunt of it, Phu Quoc style. They change the culture by pushing locals out with rising rent costs in desirable locations and by changing the nature of the businesses that survive in a tourist ghetto. The bars pumping out buckets of hard liquor thrive, but the mom and pop restaurants either die or adapt to serving the flavorless food that goes over well with spice averse Western palettes. I mourn the loss of good Thai food in most tourist cities in Thailand.
That is not to say that Thailand is all doom and gloom, there have been positives that have arisen from the booming tourist trade. There is more money flowing into the country and the businesses that cater to tourists are thriving, giving their (hopefully) local owners a leg up in a world where money talks. The people of Thailand have directly benefited from tourism’s effect on their economy in such as a middle class actually exists. The money from Western pockets has found its way into the pockets of middle class Thais, giving them the ability to live a life of dignity not seen in countries with less tourism, like neighboring Cambodia.
Also, not all locations have gone the way of the tourist ghetto. While I wouldn’t go to the Russian controlled Phuket if you paid me, read here for more on this topic, Koh Lanta holds onto a slice of the quieter island life and Koh Tao remains a backpacker paradise. However, in the two short years that have passed since Kane’s last visit it has become quite apparent that Southeast Asia’s time on the backpacker scene is short, it is getting too expensive, too crowded, and too resort-esque to be the haven of budget travelers much longer.
What is a travel writer’s role in all this? Are we, by sharing our experiences of places and encouraging people to go, slowly ruining the places we love? It is more complicated than a yes or no. I think that by drawing attention to a location, travel writers do increase tourism and with increases in tourism come many changes, not all bad, but definitely a mixed bag. However, I do not think that shutting our mouths, stalling our pens, or putting down our laptops will reverse this trend. The fact is that globalization is a cat that is out of the bag; no location will stay pristine and undiscovered for long. The Lonely Planet effect is confounded in this internet age by the presence of travel bloggers. Now anyone can become a travel writer and locations that were long ago off the path of the mainstream guidebook writer are now being laid bare on blogs across the World Wide Web.
Wait, aren’t I a travel blogger, aren’t I contributing to this very same problem? Yes, and sometimes I have my doubts about whether sharing is a good idea or not. There are places in this world that benefit from less people, escapes that I, personally, want to remain quiet places of seclusion and introspection. The stories of campsites hundreds of miles from humanity spring to mind. What Kane loves so much about the northwest of Australia is its seclusion. Very few people visit or live there, thus the land is, in many places, unscarred by humanity. The fishing is some of the best in the world because there are no people to overfish it. I can only imagine what would happen to his favorite places if they suddenly became accessible to the masses. On the precipice of our road trip around Australia, I am worried that the viral spread of Hutchy and Lauren’s Great Aus Road Trip Facebook page will close free campsites that have been mentioned on the site and will inundate the remote reaches of the Australian outback with road trip peers inspired by their adventure. Will they leave rubbish on beaches that haven’t seen a soul in months? Will it be like Kane has told me it once was, beautiful and remote, or will we be jostling for the best sunset watching position?
The truth is I do not know if writing about what I know, where I’ve been, and what I’ve seen will help or hurt our world in the long run. On one hand, I truly believe that travel is the antidote to most prejudices, after all it is much harder to hate an entire group of people once you’ve become friends with one of them. I also believe that people need to be invested in something to make a change. Maybe snorkeling the Ningaloo reef in Western Australia will convince a skeptic that we need to conserve the biodiversity of our oceans. Maybe hiking in the Grand Canyon will make a libertarian believe in the value of protecting our public lands. Maybe staying with a local family in Guatemala will convince an American that all people south of the US border are not rapists, drug dealers, and criminals. However, travel and tourism have an underbelly, the increased pollution in areas not equipped to handle the flood of people, the death of local culture as towns evolve to cater to a Western audience, and the simple loss of quiet places.
All I can hope is that the best of travel comes through in the end and that those who want to explore new places do so as sustainably and responsibly as they can. That means not leaving your rubbish behind at the beach (or anywhere), that means patronizing local establishments instead of foreign owned ones, that means not supporting industries that harm the local people (i.e. sex tourism in Thailand), and that means stepping out of your resort every once in a while (or not going to the resort in the first place). Tourism does not have to be a bad thing, but it is us, the tourists and the travelers, who make it what it is. We vote with our dollar and we need to vote for the parts of travel that improve the world, not degrade it. I am a travel blogger and I will keep writing about the places I love, but I will do it with the hope that people will respect the world we live in.