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Mega-airports and a plastic blizzard as unchecked tourism goes wild

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaThe real cost of tourism and why travellers need to be aware of the part they play in preserving — or destroying — the local environment. It's not just about bared bottoms in sacred sites.

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Tourism overcrowding can look messy

Tourism crush at a China waterpark. Overcrowding and waste bring the focus sharply on how much tourism is enough and what a destination's 'carrying capacity' is.

EVERYONE wants one. Now even tiny Siem Reap — home to Angkor's majestic jungle-shrouded temples — has a big one.

The Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport started operation on 16 October 2023, in one fell swoop catapulting the operation into the largest of its kind in Cambodia.  

Costing US$1.1bn and financed by a Chinese state-owned company on a 55-year build-operate-transfer (BOT) lease, the new airport is 40km from the historic ruins. The old airport has been closed. The first phase of the opening allows for narrow-body flights and around 7m passengers annually while the second phase by 2030 will see the introduction of wide-body aircraft like A350s and B777s with a capacity for 12m visitors.

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The argument that moving away from the old airport (far too close to the monuments) is ecologically sound has been overshadowed by the massive capacity increases. There are two obvious problems in this scenario. First, any savings on aviation pollution will be a pittance compared with the carnage wrought by an envisaged 50 million tourists with more and bigger planes by phase three (2050).

Secondly, a US$1.1 billion price-tag is a millstone around the neck of any country, especially one with a GNP in 2022 of a little over US$28bn. Admittedly the operator shoulders much of the burden. But, depending on the terms of the BOT, the government could lose out on tourism-generated airport revenues for an extended period of time. BOT arrangements are usually average around 25 years.

{In Angkor, over pumping of water has resulted in a lowering of the water table to a point where the ground is subsiding — under UNESCO heritage sites

Nepal too celebrated 1 January 2023 with the opening of the China-built Pokhara International Airport. There were no celebrations thereafter for six months until the first international flight arrived from Sichuan (carrying athletes, not tourists). Despite bullish forecasts of 280,000 passengers by 2025, as of writing (November 2023) there were no scheduled international flights from anywhere to this facility. Yet, this airport is built to handle an estimated 1m visitors annually. What is going to finance this beast? Meanwhile, the old airport continues to serve small aircraft flying to adventure destinations like Jomsom.

Potential white elephants like this — including Indonesia's US$7.3bn 'Whoosh' high speed rail (launched 2 October) — are proliferating in Asia. These are often ego projects predicated on inflated passenger forecasts. Some operations may well find their passengers in time and sort out P&L but many places are feeling the pinch of overreaching ambition.

In countries where tourism dollars are readily available to fund mega-projects there is a cost to the land and fragile ecosystems. In Angkor, over pumping of water has resulted in a dangerous lowering of the water table to a point where the ground is subsiding — under UNESCO heritage sites. This raises the frightening spectre of irreversible damage to a unique centuries-old cultural accretion.

The question governments should be asking themselves is whether smaller destinations need the sort of massive tourism influx these projects require to be viable? Small is beautiful but not when overrun by hordes.

Destinations threatened by unchecked tourism include some glamorous names like Venice (now charging for entrance to the city and with cruise ships banned), Santorini, Krabi's fabled Maya Beach (from DiCaprio's The Beach that was closed for four years), Bruges, Amsterdam, and even Mt Everest, now a serious killer trap for inexperienced hordes clambering up its flanks.

Bhutan sensibly opted for caution and has staggered visitor intake through a combination of seat capacity and pricing. But even in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon, times have changed. On 1 September 2023 Bhutan slashed its tourist charge for sustainable development in half from US$200 per day per adult to $100. The earlier fee of US$65 had been raised to $200 as the country reopened post-Covid.

The kingdom would like to see more high spending travellers though Paro International Airport handles under 300,000 passengers a year. Fortunately, there are serious constraints on capacity with the flight path through narrow valleys limiting access. Only clear-weather daytime visual landings are permitted.

Purportedly to help preserve the environment and local culture, Bali will be charging foreigners (not Indonesians) a tourist tax of US$10 per entry into the island from February 2024. This is a simple revenue grab for the local government and will not combat issues like public fornication, bared bottoms, and nudity at temples that is outraging residents.

Levity aside, tourism is both a breadwinner (making up almost 70% of the local economy in Bali) and also a huge source of waste. The Jakarta Post writes, "Tourists themselves produce 3.5 times more plastic waste per capita than locals."

The Post ominously concludes: "Bali’s tourism-dominated economy has caused a shift in local lifestyles around the use of plastic. From the rise of convenience stores with shelves of plastic products to the replacement of the traditional banana leaf with the plastic bag, Bali has embraced a version of modernity synonymous with waste."

There is a lesson to be learnt here.

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