Can tourism be sustainable?

Maya Bay on the island of Phi Phi Leh in southern Thailand is known for its isolation and unparalleled beauty, so much so that it was chosen as the filming location for the movie “The Beach” starring Leonardo diCaprio. In the movie it was featured as a legendary beach, untouched by tourism, where a group of backpackers chose to build an isolated society that could not be reached by the “mainstream” society. Unfortunately, over the last year this island has been making the news highlights for all the wrong reasons.

After the release of the movie in 2000, Maya Bay slowly became increasingly popular amongst tourists. In 2008 approximately 171 people visited the beach daily. By 2017 that number had jumped to 3 520 daily visitors during peak season. Maya Bay can only be reached by boat and a daytrip to the island cost less than R1 500.00 per person. Early in 2018, an average of 200 boats and 4 000 people visited the island daily. So instead of coming to experience idyllic solitude, visitors came to wait in a long line of boats to spend a few minutes on an island and take a selfie with hundreds of people in the background. But much more serious than that, the amount of boats throwing anchor and spilling oil and other waste into the natural harbour resulted in the destruction of 90% of the coral that lived off the shores of Maya Bay. In addition the increase in the hotel industry on other parts of the island has resulted in large scale pollution of freshwater and saltwater systems in and around the island. Due to the environmental degradation caused by the tourism activity, the government of Thailand closed Maya Bay to tourists temporarily in June 2018 and indefinitely in October 2018.

The face of tourism is changing. Many new travellers are no longer impressed by traditional sightseeing or luxury hotels in popular tourist destinations. Millennials are interested in experiences, be it unique experiences or adventurous experiences, the focus should be that it is a “once in a lifetime” experience and for that, the new generation is willing to pay. The “Wolfgat” restaurant in Paternoster was crowned as the Restaurant of the Year and best restaurant in the “Off the Map Destination” category at the inaugural World Restaurant Awards in Paris in February this year. This restaurant can seat only 20 people and the staff is not professionally trained and locally sourced. On the menu is whatever was freshly caught or salvaged from the ocean and vegetation growing on the beach dunes. The price is roughly R750.00 per person for a seven course meal and, due to the exclusivity of this experience, this price is considered very affordable. This restaurant is undoubtedly a trendsetter and, if managed sustainably, has the potential to change the way tourists eat for many years to come.

So how exactly does one practice environmentally sustainable tourism? 2017 was International Year of Sustainable Tourism and 17 tourism destinations or companies were awarded with a Biosphere Certificate for practicing sustainable tourism. The principles that are generally given for sustainable tourism are 1) environmental sustainability – making sure that resources can be used by generations to come; 2) socio-cultural sustainability – minimising the negative impact and maximising the positive impact of the tourism related activities on the local community; and 3) economic sustainability – it should be economically viable and economically benefit the local community. The practices used by the 17 Biosphere Certificate holders to achieve these goals included in summary the following: 1) recycling of waste; 2) saving electricity and using “green” energy; 3) putting money back into protecting the resource and benefiting the local community; and 4)grey water recycling. These sound like great principles for sustainable tourism practices, however simply utilising these and other widely accepted sustainable practices will not, in my opinion, result in a sustainable tourism industry. Practicing these principles would not have made a big difference in saving Maya Bay for example.

I could write many blogs on exactly how sustainable (or not) certain “sustainable tourism” practices are and how some would fit perfectly in one case, but prove disastrous in another. It is not possible to recommend sustainable tourism practices for a particular destination or activity without doing very specific research and designing an individual programme based on the needs of the specific area and activity. Here at Bucandi Environmental Solutions we pride ourselves in thinking “outside the box” and providing specific solutions to each customer, including our customers in the tourism sector. If you are looking for environmentally sustainable practices to turn your tourism venture into a unique experience that benefits the environment and reaches your economical requirements, let us be a part of your adventure.

Finally, back to Maya Bay, less than 6 months after prohibiting visitors from visiting the beach, a colony of blacktip reef sharks have returned to the bay. Though it can’t yet be determined if the sharks will stay in the area, researchers are fairly certain that they have returned to the area to breed, which would be a very positive indication of ecological status of the bay. It should also be noted that boats have not been banned from the area entirely. They are only kept at a distance of 300m away from the shore.

The environment that we live in is very resilient and has so much to offer if we can only utilise it in a sustainable fashion and remember the symbiotic relationship with Mother Earth that we are so dependent on.

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