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  • Writer's pictureGabriel Turano

Tourism. Solution or Threat?

Updated: Oct 8, 2023

I celebrate 800 days of travel in constructing this text, and I recently returned from the fourth most populous country in the world: Indonesia. With a population of over 270 million people, the country faces all the turmoil caused by the complexity of socio-economic challenges, and, primarily, environmental issues. Indonesia is an archipelago consisting of more than 17 thousand islands. That's right, over 17 thousand islands scattered across three oceans (Indian, Pacific, and Java Sea).

The country's capital, located on the island of Java, Jakarta, is the largest city in Southeast Asia, with a population above 10 million. Indeed, there are many superlatives for the same country, although they do not necessarily denote attributes.

Now, imagine the challenge of governing and providing basic services to an extremely populous country, with all the logistical complexity. To further intensify this situation, although it is the country with the largest number of Muslims on the planet, there are other religions depending on the island in question. Bali, for example, is predominantly Hindu. Meanwhile, the island of Java is predominantly Muslim, while on the island of Sumatra, we find a somewhat more sectarian Islam.

Even though the country has thousands of islands, only a few places concentrate tourism. I landed in Bali, the globally recognized island synonymous with spirituality, culture, and religion. Unfortunately, this wasn't the place I found.

The chaotic traffic in Indonesia.

With extremely chaotic traffic due to the excessive number of scooters, cars, buses, and trucks navigating through a limited territory — given that Bali is an island — covering just a few dozen kilometers requires hours and hours amidst honking, pollution, and much chaos.

Undoubtedly, this doesn't eliminate the scenic landscapes of the island, widely known. However, Bali is an interesting case study on how tourism is a dichotomous mechanism between economic expansion, development of local communities, and the destruction of nature, cultural erosion, and corruption of a society that, while aspiring to and deserving progress, is poisoned by all the deleterious elements it carries.

Walking in Ubud, one of the island's main destinations portrayed in the film "Eat, Pray, Love," gives the impression of being on a street in a European city, with all the international brands like Polo Ralph Lauren, Giordano, Starbucks, Deus ex machina, surf brands, among others. The pedestrians? Almost all tourists from Australia, the United States, European countries, and Asia. The scenic landscapes, peaceful streets, and bicycles in rice fields remain only in the images from the movie.

To give you an idea, Bali receives over 12 million tourists annually. During the European summer, there might be more than 20 thousand people disembarking in a single day in search of the Instagrammable photos and videos that the island offers.

Lines of tourists at a religious temple.

Places that have become famous on social media have queues, often kilometers long, to have the opportunity to take a photo or video similar to those seen on the channels of influencers in this digital era we live in.

There is a high price that the island pays for all the progress that tourism has brought. The beaches are crowded with plastic, rubber, construction materials, pairs of shoes, and everything that post-industrial society produces. Deforestation continues at full speed to make way for large constructions such as resorts, parking lots, commercial buildings, restaurants, and all the infrastructure that tourism entails.

The culture of "as long as you pay" has become a common practice. Want to visit the beach? There's an entrance fee. Want to park your scooter? Payment is required. Want to choose a spot on the sand to sit? You need to rent a beach umbrella if you don't want to be close to the trash, as the "premium" spots are already occupied with tables, chairs, and umbrellas from local restaurants.

In Nusa Penida, an island near Bali, lines and lines of jeeps form on the rudimentary streets. Inside are tourists, especially Asians, who hire drivers expecting them to take them to the most "Instagrammable" spots. I even saw tour guides climbing trees to ensure the best photos for their clients.

Tired and exhausted from all this artificiality, I headed to the island of Java, the most populous island in the country and much less explored by these travelers. Indeed, I found a more local place, with the pardon for the redundancy. Java is home to the most active and well-known volcanoes in Indonesia, and visiting them was indeed very interesting. I could also appreciate the local culture more and feel the kindness of one of the sweetest peoples I have met during my journey.

The further west I went, the fewer tourists I encountered. Unfortunately, also as a result of overpopulation, I found very little or no sustainability. When visiting Bromo, one of the main volcanoes in the country, I traversed an apocalyptic scenery commonly portrayed in movies.

The fire that devastated the national park.

The national park had recently been opened to the public because, in the days leading up to my arrival, a couple had set fire to the park by releasing fireworks to celebrate their wedding, while creating content for TikTok. That's right, they set off fireworks inside a national park for TikTok.

This action led to the destruction of the national park, along with the loss of all the animal life, just so the couple could have good photos and videos to share. Human stupidity knows no bounds, and the lack of empathy has become an epidemic in many places.

Jakarta is literally sinking, and the government has a billion-dollar plan to move the capital to Borneo (which will involve more deforestation in one of the few preserved regions of the country). The reason is also the unrestrained and unsustainable population growth. With limited water resources to supply the most populous city in the region, there has been increasing drilling into the ground for fresh water, creating an underground void and causing the land to sink.

OAnother reason is the weight of the constructions to meet population growth. Heavy buildings and infrastructure contribute to the sinking, especially in areas built on layers of soil that are susceptible to subsidence.

All these harmful actions in no way negate the attributes that the country possesses. Indonesia is diverse and plural. There are still preserved and unique areas, such as Komodo National Park, jungles that harbor the almost extinct orangutans, the beautiful rivers and beaches of the various islands, a rich and centuries-old cuisine, and a friendly, curious, and sweet population.

A miner smoking on the island of Java.

Indonesia is just another example among many countries facing similar challenges that I've visited. Many tourists are unaware of their actions and contribute to unsustainable practices, like exploitative tourism. In Cambodia, foreigners from wealthy countries support the child prostitution industry. In Africa, Asians seeking the best photos allegedly bribe safari car drivers to go "off the track," blocking the paths of animals. During one of my whale shark dives in Mozambique, a European, disregarding all rules of proper conduct, touched the animal while his friend photographed it. In Thailand, uninformed divers step on corals struggling to survive with the rising ocean temperatures.

How, then, to make tourism accessible and at the same time keep it sustainable?

There are no simple answers to complex questions. In the Philippines, on the island of Cebu, specifically in Moalboal, I went to witness a location famous for the presence of schools of sardines. Passionate about diving and the ocean, I didn't hesitate to visit. Upon reaching the spot, dozens, perhaps hundreds of tourists were gathered at a specific point in the sea where the sardines were present.

Scores of tourists in search of sardine schools

In the struggle among tourists to reach the same spot, I noticed the amount of plastic and waste left by visitors. Moreover, boats were using corals to anchor themselves. The so-called "guides," hired by various tourism agencies without proper training, did not lead the groups with information about good practices. Their roles were merely as photographers, while their clients stepped on corals and disturbed the animals in search of the best photos.

The health of the corals was disheartening. Already affected by the rising ocean temperatures, those that survived were crushed daily by tourists. Near the beach, everything turned into a large cemetery. I imagine how beautiful these places must have been when Ferdinand Magellan arrived in the Philippines in the 16th century.

In Oslob, in the southern part of the island, a tourism industry focused on experiences with gentle and curious whale sharks has developed. I refused to visit after discovering that an entire ecosystem was altered to sustain the tourism industry. The sharks, at a certain time of the year, used to pass through the region, and the local residents, realizing the tourism potential around these creatures, began feeding them to encourage their presence. It's so absurd that there are now reports of tourists climbing on the animals during the "tour" with local agencies.

The absurdities don't end there. Diving at one of the island's beaches, I encountered a majestic sea snake. An extremely peaceful creature, which, upon noticing my presence, quickly moved away to the ocean floor. I could admire it for a few seconds until it disappeared from view. The next day, on the same beach, I found a similar snake (and believe it might be the same one as they are not highly populated) dead in the sand. Probably a victim of children or local adults.

Dead sea snake on the beach sand.

We, as tourists, have responsibilities for our actions. Researching, understanding, and analyzing tourist programs is imperative to make tourism more sustainable. Corrupt individuals and those who corrupt form a symbiosis where, in the absence of one, the other simply does not exist. Whale sharks are exploited in this way only because there are tourists willing to pay for this disastrous experience. Similarly, this exploitative market exists because unethical agencies decided to feed the animals. The same applies to captive dolphin rides, orcas, and so forth.

Responding, therefore, to the above-mentioned question is challenging. I continue to believe, just as in social issues, that education is a "sine qua non" item for us to advance as a society. It needs to go beyond. Local communities play a fundamental role in preserving the ecosystem. Today, places like Indonesia, the Philippines, and many others are explored daily without any concern for the future. Entire communities depend on tourism and, through this income, support their families, educate their children, and progress in life. Without the existence of this means, none of this would be possible. Therefore, it is necessary to educate local communities and, through them, aim for sustainability based on good conduct practices.

Local guide and their clients stepping on already heavily damaged corals.

Traveling is still a privilege for a few nationalities. A few years ago, tourism was a market dominated mainly by Americans and a few European countries. This dynamic has changed (and fortunately so!), and today it is very common to notice a more significant presence of Asians, such as Chinese, Japanese, South Koreans, and Thais. Traveling is about expanding horizons, deconstructing, and learning, but it must be done in the right way. It is not uncommon to see travel agencies specialized in this audience. Unfortunately, Asia is not a success story in terms of sustainability, preservation, and environmental education. Therefore, I view with great concern the expansion of tourism among Asians seeking experiences that are little or almost not sustainable.

We can only address the problems that we recognize as existing. My relationship with the ocean changed completely after becoming a dive master. Perhaps for an unaware tourist, it may seem entirely normal to walk on corals and even find beauty in a coral cemetery that, in the past, was full of life, with a variety of fish and crustaceans.

However, there are good examples to be followed. In East and Southern Africa, governments of various countries have turned areas of their territories into national parks, attracting tourists from around the world and contributing to the GDP. In Tanzania, more than 30% of its territory has been designated as national parks, and the country has strict penalties against illegal hunting.

The kingdom of Eswatini, after losing more than 80% of the rhinoceros population during the civil war in Mozambique, following its independence from Portugal, decided to create protected areas. Today, it is one of the few places on the continent where it is possible to almost guaranteedly spot these magnificent creatures. As I write this text, I see news that the rhinoceros population has, for the first time in more than a decade, grown after suffering dramatic losses due to the illegal trade of their horns to supply Asian markets.

Rhinoceroses in Hlane National Park, Swaziland"

I feel nostalgic thinking about living in a time I didn't experience. It's undeniable the progress that technology has brought, but it has become much more challenging to have authentic and genuine experiences. Sometimes, I find myself thinking about the travelers of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. It must have been wonderful to explore a world without the impacts of social media, without the cultural disfigurement of communities, and without the boundless ambition to profit from unsustainable programs.

Unfortunately, progress, population growth, and development come at a high cost. Rich and developed countries are responsible for almost all of the greenhouse gases causing climate change. The development of Europe occurred through the underdevelopment of other countries, especially in Africa. How can we tell countries that finally have the chance to taste progress that they are not eligible? How can we say that they can't improve their lives because the planet can't bear more emissions?

These are many questions without clear answers. As one of Dave Starke's songs says, "How we expect to save the world by leaving all our troubles for the morning?"

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