Inspiration Travel

This Does Not Float My Boat – An Opinion on Mass Tourism

16. September 2017

“Collect Moments, not Things”, “I’d Rather Have a Passport Full of Stamps than a House Full of Stuff”, “To Travel Is Worth Any Cost or Sacrifice” – if you are on Instagram or Facebook, these quotes are probably nothing new to you. Travelling for Millenials and Gen Z’s is the new designer bags or tech gadgets. And more than ever before has travelling become affordable to masses. I am an avid traveller, I love to explore new places and meet new people. But more and more I realize that travelling has become an accessory, something that you have to do. Not because you learn, just to be able to say that you have been and post a picture on Instagram. And going back to the third quote – I do think that a lot of travellers are cost sensitive. But it is true that a lot of them do not think about the sacrifice. But I am talking not talking about the personal sacrifices we make to travel. It is about the thing that is really being sacrificed for the sake of mass tourism – our environment.

You might wonder now why I suddenly come up with such an opinion piece. Well, I have just come back from my most recent trip to Phuket. I love Thailand – it is just beautiful, I really enjoy the local culture and cuisine and the nature the country has to offer. It was not my first trip to Phuket and maybe this was a reason why I looked a bit closer. The things I am describing here are something that I have seen in almost all of the popular tourist spots and I really felt that I should share my experience from my last trip with you.

In 2012, I was on a scuba diving tour with some friends in Langkawi, Malaysia, and for the first time I really started to realize how big the problem has become. It was one of these group tours with 30 to 40 people – the majority of which could not swim. A lot of people from countries which are now developing to the stages of becoming industrialized can afford to go on holidays. However, a lot of them do not know how to swim. Which results in the diving company handing them swimming vests and letting them float around to snorkel. In Malaysia, they even put a rope through all the life vests to be able to control the group of non-swimmers. Hand in hand with a lack of knowledge about swimming goes a lack of understanding for wildlife and nature. A lot of guests broke off corals from the reef (even though it was pointed out in several languages multiple times not to do that) or they fed the baby sharks (which was also not allowed). I got really upset by the ignorance of so many visitors and got the feeling that very often the mindset is “I want to see it, I want to get the most out of it and I do not care if it will be there tomorrow.” I decided that I did not want to go on any of those mass trips again.

Initially, the view from the beach did not seem too bad.

In the same year, I went on another scuba diving trip to explore Koh Phi Phi, Thailand. We were four friends who went with two instructors who were amazingly patient with someone who is a bit clumsy like me. 😉 Furthermore, they gave us interesting insights into their lives in Phuket and the state of the environment. When we reached Koh Phi Phi, I was prepared for turquoise water, crystal clear sight and beautiful nature and silence. Well, the nature was there. However, so were five or six party boats with very loud music and throwing all of their waste into the water. When we were diving, we had to pass by their trash and my diving instructor told me that he prefers tourists who come for the scuba diving because usually they are more interested in nature and how to preserve it. It was so sad to see that the most important activity for the people on the boats was getting drunk – no appreciation at all for where they actually were.

I did not even have to look closely. When I walked along the beach, I was shocked by the amount of trash in the sea – styrofoam, plastic bottles, lost shoes, plastic plates and cutlery were constantly washed onto the beach.

On my most recent trip to Phuket, we also wanted to explore the area again and signed up for a trip on Expedia – unfortunately we did not realize it was one of those trips that I never wanted to be on again. It sounded really nice – a bit of snorkelling and sightseeing at Koh Phi Phi. When we came onto the boat and saw all the people on it, our first thought was that we might go to the main beach of Phi Phi Island and then be with a smaller group. We were not. There were at least 60 people. Shortly before the beach, we were pushed into the small local junks and brought to the beach. I was shocked what I saw there: styrofoam, lost shoes, plastic cutlery and plates from the restaurant where we were supposed to have lunch. Was this really the place where we should snorkel?! They then took us out on the small boats again for about 30 minutes to snorkel – that was all, not a whole lot of time to actually get to know a place. But I did not have the impression that the other people on the tour group bothered – most of them were only concerned to get some footage of them in the water for Instagram…

Of course, because all the people where in the water, you can imagine how much you get to see and what the water looked like. One girl panicked in the water because she could not swim but decided to jump in there with her life vest anyways. And one guy came back to our boat with some shells and other stuff he stole from the reef! The local guides told him to put it back into the water. Initially he refused. Only when they said that the police will check, he put it back (which is too late anyways because the animals had been removed from their natural habitat). This guy did not even apologize, he was upset that he could not bring his “souvenirs” back home.

Phuket and the nearby Phi Phi Island are beautiful treasures and I do hope that more and more travellers become more aware about the environmental implications before we lose this treasure.

After the half hour of snorkelling, we were brought back to the restaurant, stayed there for another 90 minutes and then left for the “sightseeing tour”. This was basically passing by Maya Bay (the famous one from the movie The Beach) with the big boat –  not going in, just passing by. And even if we had wanted to enter, there would not have been that much space to be there anyways. Passing by, I counted 7 big boats and 10 smaller ones at the entrance to the bay – probably there were some more further in. When I was there in 2012, it was hard to imagine that it could get worse, but it did.

After all of this, you will now think: “Why is she ranting here?”. Well, I kind of used this post to rant, that is true. However, the point I want to make to all of you is one that is very close to my heart: I know how much you all love to travel. So do I. But please do not do it only for the sake of ticking off destinations from your list. Do it because you want to be an explorer – get to know local cultures, appreciate the nature and look behind the touristy attractions. And most importantly, please respect nature and wildlife and leave it in a state that also our children, grandchildren and the generations after can also enjoy the beauty of these places.

A first step is to avoid mass trips or cruises (do not get me started on them, this would be another potential rant-post :D), try to get a local experience and go on smaller, locally organized tours and take your trash home with you and do not dump it in the ocean. And last but not least: wildlife is not a souvenir. If we take those “souvenirs” with us from the ocean, we destroy much more than we think.

PS: I am currently working on a vlog about my Phuket trip and I will also try to include footage of the snorkelling trip. It will be online next week, stay tuned!

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  • Reply Sarah 16. September 2017 at 17:22

    Such an important piece. Reading this made me angry! I’ve never been snorkeling but when we were at Siem Reap people were all over the ruins taking selfies – leaning against them and touching them. It was appalling. Being excited about a place you’re visiting is fine, but being respectful is the most important.

    • Reply Liz 17. September 2017 at 11:02

      Thanks so much for your comment. I agree. There recently was a guy on Instagram, I think he was an artist, gathering pictures of people who took selfies at the holocaust memorial in Berlin. I think it is really a matter of education and respect.

  • Reply Aireona 16. September 2017 at 17:26

    So, I am a travel researcher for my day job, and your opinion is totally valid. Mass tourism brings in money, but there is alot of disrespect for the place and people. And it is easy for you to get nearly the same experience anywhere you go with mass tourism. Alternative tourism is the way to go.

    • Reply Liz 17. September 2017 at 11:02

      I think it’s a really tricky topic. I think the more people have access to travelling, the more people can learn. However, there is also the downside of really cheap mass tours…

  • Reply Alaine 17. September 2017 at 1:54

    Oh my goodness! What an utter embarrassment of people!! I dislike those busloads of people type tour is. It’s too many people, you don’t get to really get a feel for the place… sigh. I recently ended up on one for a day to the vineyards in Bordeaux and though the people signed up were respectful, I felt like I was being rushed through the chateau and winery tours. The other days were wonderful with a small groups of 6. I wish that there were more ways to find out more about smaller group tours rather than the big tours. Or rather the big tours abolished completely and only small tours operating in areas like Phuket, Iceland, Norway….

    • Reply Liz 17. September 2017 at 11:03

      Yeah, I always wonder who goes on such a tour again after that experience?! But obviously people do. If there was no demand, there would be no offer…

  • Reply Katherine 17. September 2017 at 8:39

    It reminds me of local tours in the Philippines where a single agency or organizer gathers around 100 guests in one trip. It’s crazy… not to mention, there’d be more than one group tour heading to an area, so even newly discovered locations easily get swamped with people and trash.

    Anyway, I don’t know how to swim (or rather, I can only float for a certain period) and a lot of my friends don’t either, but we’re knowledgeable about do’s and don’t’s and wildlife/environment preservation. The two doesn’t always go together. I think it’s just a matter of opportunity. As kids we didn’t have swimming lessons and most of us in the city aren’t near bodies of water, so we grew up not knowing how to swim.

    • Reply Liz 17. September 2017 at 11:04

      I agree with you. It might be premature to link the ability to swim and respect in a linear way. Probably it’s more accurate to say it’s linked to the general respect a person has for other people and nature.

  • Reply Teja on the Horizon 3. October 2017 at 11:35

    Thank you thank you thank you. Especially the bit on party boats in epic nature spots, which I very rarely see written (I’ll not say more about the environmental responsibility part; this is basically a consensus now). Now, I am totally fine with the existence of places that serve alcohol, but personally I feel quite offended at the thought of tourism destinations which are coveted precisely because they are places where nature awes you with her incredible beauty, and yet masses of people go there to spend it basically just getting drunk and being messy. You can do that somewhere else – back home, maybe. Or a city destination. It feels insulting to do it in places of outstanding natural beauty. There. I’ve said it.

    • Reply Liz 4. October 2017 at 4:16

      I totally agree with you. It is very sad and totally not the kind of travel I would want to support. I love to party too but I think we all do not need to do that in a nature reserve.

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