By: Gregory McCann

From the looks of it, one could be forgiven for thinking that Santa Claus was standing atop Mount Everest in Nepal handing out presents, with throngs of international trekkers lined up on the high altitude Himalayan ridge lines awaiting their hard-earned and highly expensive gift from a chubby bearded man in a bright red suit.

In fact, they were lined up for a reason—it was selfie time for those who made it to the summit. Once one of the most remote and challenging places on earth to visit, Mount Everest, known in Tibet as Chomolungma, has fallen victim to a disease that has infected Asia: over-tourism.

So far, 11 people have died in 2019 alone attempting to scale Everest, most of whom coveted that selfie on the summit—and the selfies were part of the hold-up that created those massive lines. Increasingly, Asia’s popular destinations are degrading as they are crushed by an avalanche of budget airlines, package tours, swelling visitor numbers, and mountains of trash

How can Asian countries that are heavily reliant on tourism avoid the plague of overtourism wherein virtually all of a nation’s attractions, cities, and airports are overrun with hordes of international visitors causing chaos, pollution, and an overall worse experience for all involved? While the Washington Post recently made Amsterdam, Venice, Barcelona and Paris “the poster children for overtourism” and put 20 world cities on the list, it is Asia’s wilderness areas that face an equal problem, and one that is both more difficult to solve and lacks the resources to solve them.

Is there anything that those considering a trip to Asia can do to avoid contributing to this problem and at the same time create a more rewarding experience for themselves?  The answer is a partial Yes. The Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, while earning the world’s opprobrium for his bloody War on Drugs, which has taken the lives of thousands of poor drug users, cracked down dramatically on Boracay Island, closing one of the world’s top beach destinations after it was overcome with sewage problems, overcrowding,  tourist gouging and other problems.

Duterte ordered the beach closed until the problems could be solved, then a program set up to meter the numbers of visitors to limit overcrowding.

Maya Bay in Thailand, made famous by a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, was thronged by tourists who destroyed coral reefs and put major pressure on a delicate ecosystem. Thai authorities closed the beach for three months to take pressure off the system.  Many of Thailand’s ocean national parks are closed from mid-May to mid-October. Likewise, Indonesian authorities closed Komodo Island, which had been under the pressure of 10,000 tourists a day, causing the famed dragons to actually shrink.  Travel agencies, tourists, and developers need to back off, otherwise these national treasures will be permanently trampled.

Other areas are not so lucky, at least not yet. For Nepal, tourism is so important to the nation’s economy that it has no plans to reduce the number of permits for Everest climbers. Farther afield, tourism accounts for a whopping 80 percent of the Balinese economy, rendering much of the island unrecognizable to anyone who visited even a decade ago. Bali’s beaches are so clogged with trash that they’re in their worst condition in 10 years, The government has become so reliant on tourism revenue that it can do little more than accommodate more tourists.

The number of Chinese tourists to Cambodia jumped 37 percent in the first four months of 2019, while the number of tourists visiting Thailand doubled in eight years with more 34 million international visitors touching down in what was once the Land of Smiles.   

A new airport in northern Vietnam near Halong Bay is expected to put additional environmental stress on a spectacularly scenic area that is already experiencing overtourism. Despite flotillas of trash and feces in the famous bay waters, the purpose of the airport is to boost tourism. Phu Quoc Island and other Vietnamese destinations are now gearing up for mass tourism, much of it from South Korea, rather than the low-scale, eco, or backpacker variety that more often trickles down to local people.

What are the solutions? Governments need to steer tourists to more high value, low-volume destinations to escape the crowds and contribute to sustainability and to push travelers to try visiting places like Angkor Wat or Bali in the off-season when tourist numbers will be low, and when the dark storm clouds looming overhead actually add a special ambiance to the scene. Governments must try to stop focusing on numbers and put more emphasis on quality over quantity.

But some will ask—don’t the locals want mass tourism? Don’t more tourists equal more money? We need to tread carefully here. “Zero dollar” Chinese tour companies operate across Asia, and especially in Thailand, while in Cambodia locals complain that Chinese tourists only shop at Chinese-owned stores.

In Overbooked, Elizabeth Becker explains that while the Cambodian province of Siem Reap receives by far and away the largest amount of foreign investment (almost all of it for tourism), it is still by far the poorest province in Cambodia. The profits from the fancy hotels apparently make their way out of the Kingdom and into bank accounts in Singapore, Hong Kong, and London, while local people have lost their land and fight for low-paying jobs in those hotels. Tourism—especially mass tourism—may not be working out for the locals the way some, including governments, think it is.

In his 2007 Emmy Award-winning show on Laos, the late travel host, chef, and author Anthony Bourdain confessed to a community leader in Luang Prabang that in showing the town to television “we destroy what we love.” But I get the feeling that today there is destruction without love; Asia’s beauty spots are now stomping grounds in search of a selfie and an Instagram or WeChat post.

At its worst, modern tourism will result in the systematic destruction of everything that is beautiful in the region—that’s a line I tweaked from the prophetic 1975 book The Golden Hordes: International Tourism and the Pleasure Periphery. One thing is for sure—governments need to carefully consider just what they want when it comes to tourism, otherwise they risk quickly losing the allure that made their great destinations famous to begin with. But right now that does not seem to be happening.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator for Habitat ID and author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor.