We affect the places we visit as much as they affect us. It’s especially true in developing countries where the tourist infrastructure is being constructed and the regulations are lax.
My motorbike broke down on the far side of Koh Chang yesterday, and the old Thai man who picked me up was pointing out the changes. “The road was paved 10 years ago,” he said. “But it was built for motorbike, not car.” He honked the horn as we rounded a blind corner on the steep single lane road.
“Out here there was nothing,” he said. “Or just small bungalow. 40 baht a night. Lamps at night, no electricity.” Now the bungalows are at least 400 baht, $10 dollars, and they come with fans and televisions and internet.
Hat Sai is the largest beach on the island and the first stop after the ferry. In all ways it’s the typical tourist strip- beach bars with loud American pop music, large resorts on either side of the road, restaurants, internet cafes, tailor shops, tourism offices and three 7/11s.
As you get further from the pier, the towns get smaller and less developed- but “Lonely Beach” now seems like it was badly named, and new construction is everywhere.
It’s conflicting to know that I that play a part in this. My bungalow is past the major tourist spots and not in the guide book. It’s cheaper than Hat Sai and still quiet at night. If I get up early I have the beach to myself, which is one of the reasons I came out here. But it’s also people like me that push the development further.
“This was all built last year,” said the owner, referring to the bungalows where I’ve been staying. He showed me the property on Google Earth, where the satellite maps are two years out of date and the town looks a lot smaller.
He said business is good this year, considering a global recession, and I’m sure if it gets better he’d consider buying the empty adjacent lot. Perhaps he’d build a few more bungalows, and maybe those will have air-conditioning and cost a bit more.
With additional tourists the town could also support another restaurant, or at least a 7/11- and it will gradually change into something else, more like Hat Sai or Phuket.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t travel or the places we visit are always worse for it. They’re not. The effect we have on these communities is more our presence than our active involvement, and the locals ultimately decide what gets built and where. But we should consider it, encourage sustainable development when possible, and be somewhat aware of the tracks we leave.
We all want to find that empty beach where no one has been before, but at some point I’m afraid we’ll all be there together.