HCMC Dining Guide

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Downside of International Tourism

In today's world, it is easier than ever before to visit countries on the other side of the globe. Since the end of World War II the number of international airports, ports, rail lines, and roads has exploded. As a result, you can now walk out the front door of your house one day and be in some untamed wilderness in Africa, or exploring a crowded megacity in India, the next. This ease of travel certainly has its benefits, especially in poorer countries. Revenue from tourism allows for infrastructure improvements like bigger roads and faster trains, which help bring in more tourists while making it easier for locals to get around as well. More people are able to see how other cultures operate, breaking down walls of misunderstanding built up in the decades before the advent of international airlines. Instead of simply believing some stereotype about Indonesia or France, you can actually go there and find out for yourself what the people and places are really like. Our world is huge and diverse, and the more people see of it the better off we will all be.

However, the ever-growing flow of international visitors has its downsides as well. This became very apparent to me while I was in Thailand, an extremely popular vacation destination thanks to its diverse geography, friendly people, and great food. While I did enjoy Chiang Mai, it was hard to miss the fact that most of the Old City was geared towards tourists. From restaurants serving Western fare to internet cafes and massage parlors, it became difficult at times to find a real Thai place of business or residence. The city is surrounded by some amazing natural scenery, but if you want to venture into it on your own you might as well forget about it. Everything is geared towards package tours where your hand is held the whole time: Zipline along the forest canopy with 30 other people! Go white-water rafting in calm rivers with 30 other people! Visit an elephant farm...with 30 other people!

We had almost no choice but to pick one of these, so we went on a "trek" that included several different activities, most of which were pretty awful. We started out with the aformentioned rafting, which was only exciting for about 10% of the time. Next was "bamboo rafting," simply floating down the river while a Thai guy poled us along. I almost died of boredom, and we almost ran into a piece of construction equipment that was sitting in the middle of the river, removing mud. Not sure why it was there, but there seemed to be a hotel going up, and the belching exhaust certainly ruined the moment. (The environmental cost of international tourism is a whole other story.)
Later on, our guide took us to an "authentic" minority village to get a glimpse of how the other half lives. This was just as bad. As soon as we stepped out of the van, women started shoving "original" handicrafts, which were exactly the same things that are sold every 5 feet in Bangkok's backpacker area, in our face. We got past them and noticed that the dusty village, home to houses with bamboo walls and thatched roofs, actually looked pretty poor. My interest was piqued, but then I noticed the satellite dishes bolted to every roof, and the unmistakable sound of a TV emanating from several of the dwellings. This pissed me off. The village was nothing more than a farce, flush with tourist money. Crap like that is completely geared towards tourists that want to go to an exotic country and see something "real," without having to actually to do any of the work necessary to see such things. Instead of going out into the countryside on their own, they just hop in a van and waddle out whenever their driver tells them to, take a few pictures, and carry on, before being whisked back to their hotel for a foot massage. Fortunately, the countryside around the village was quite beautiful, so I focused on that instead of the satellite dishes. I guess I should be happy that these villagers have enough money to buy TVs, and I am, but it all just felt like a sham.
"I wonder what's on HBO tonight."

Obvious poverty.

That's better.
The "trek" really didn't get any better after that. Next, we stopped at a waterfall that was about 20 feet away from a major road and had buildings stuck almost in the middle of it. Not to mention the unsightly blue drainage pipe running right above it. Lovely.
By the end of the day I had had more than enough of tourism. Fortunately, as I found out on the rest of the trip, not every area of Thailand is as bad. Even in parts of Chiang Mai you can find solitute and actual nature, like when I went on my mountain bike ride. There was some awesome scenery along the trail, and I'm really glad I did that. Areas of Koh Tao are also still completely undeveloped. I hope that remains the case, but it's unlikely.

The point of all of this is this: what will the world look like in a few decades, as more and more of its people are able to afford to visit other countries? Will there be any untamed wildernesses left to explore? Will there be hotels on Mt. Everest, or in the deepest reaches of the Amazon? Will cities simply turn into giant tourist areas catering to every need of the international traveler? Much of Thailand has already gone over to the "tourist side," with increasingly luxurious accomodations springing up all over the place, and travel agencies spreading deeper into the countryside. Vietnam appears to be heading in that direction as well, with resorts going up on its best beaches and amazing natural areas like Sapa and Halong Bay serving little purpose outside of the tourist trade.

I realize I probably sound pretty hypocritical in saying all of this. Indeed, I've been a tourist in Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam. But I like to think that I act differently from the people that demand horrid package tours that trample over local and environmental concerns, all in the name of squeezing in as much "authentic" crap as possible in the shortest time period possible. I like seeing unaltered natural beauty and towns that aren't full of restaurants with names like "Same Same, But Different" and children trying to get you to buy packs of chewing gum. I don't mind roughing it, and I don't mind spending a fair amount of time in one place.

I suppose, then, that tourism creates a conundrum: we want to see nature at its wildest and villages at their most real, i.e., poor. But, the money made from tourism allows many such villagers to escape a life of grinding poverty and move on, and leads to the building of roads so we can get closer to nature, which actually end up pushing nature farther away. Ultimately, tourism may end up destroying the very places that lured tourists in the first place. Just look at the Great Pyramids in Egypt. If we are careful, the future may be brighter, but I don't see that many careful tourists.

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