Calming down the tourism craze, does enclosure serve its purpose?

If you look forward to spending summer in Southeast Asia, you might want to take Boracay and Maya Bay, two of the top-rated destination in Thailand and the Philippines, off of your list.

Thailand will officially make Maya Bay, which featured in 2000 movie “The Beach” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, inaccessible for tourist from June to September this year. Meanwhile, even though the technicality is still being discussed, The Philippines interagency task force on Boracay recommend shutting down the island for six months from April 26. The Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has supported this recommendation.

It was not the first time Thailand government use enclosure strategy to protect the ecosystem. In 2016, the government shut down southern Similan islands, a group of famous scenic islands in the Andaman Sea, to tourists from May to October. However, after the fifth month, one of them, Koh Tachai, stayed out of bounds indefinitely. The official announcement mention that overcrowding was the main problem for the small tourist islands in the country. Koh Tachai has the capacity to bear 70 visitors, but, almost 1,000 visitors descend on the island daily. Other than Koh Tachain, Koh Khai Nok, Koh Khai Nui, and Koh Khai Nai (koh means island) were also restricted to tourists during the same year.

In Indonesia, Thomas Egly shows The Guardian’s readers reader how tourism could ruin a paradise through pictures. He shows an excellent case on how international tourists have changed Gili Trawangan, Lombok, from a tiny island with rich underwater scenery for divers, into a party island with a degraded ecosystem. The transition from a serene small island to a party island is contradictory and might offensive to the locals as Lombok population is predominantly Muslim, they don’t drink or party. Furthermore, last year, Caledonian Sky, a tourist cruise ship, damaged 18,882 square meters of coral reef in Raja Ampat. Raja Ampat in West Papua, Indonesia is part of the coral triangle, the richest and most abundant marine biodiversity in the world.

With these casualties and many other stories on how irresponsible tourism ruining paradise, there is clear evidence that Southeast Asia governments need a better tourism regulation. However, the effectiveness of ecosystem protection should also take into account the fact that the countries rely so much on tourism to generate revenue.

The total contribution of tourism and travel to Thailand GDP is more than 20%, which predicted will keep on rising to more than 30% in 2027. While Thailand benefited from tourism, the closure of those islands is predicted to have no significant impact on the government's revenue. The closure of area in south-west Thailand often happens anyway during May-October due to the monsoon season. In fact, May to October is the lowest season for tourism in the area. That being said, the impact of closure to biodiversity improvement post enclosure is unclear.

However, Boracay stakeholders do not approach the regulation with the same acceptance as their counterpart in Thailand. Tourism Congress of the Philippines is unhappy. While they pledged support to the rehabilitation of the island, they are concern about losing income and trips that already booked for the year. Addressing that concern, The Philippines National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) estimated that the closure would only have 0.1% impact on the tourism economy. If that calculation is accurate, the shut down might not have a significant effect on the economy of the country, but it will still be troublesome for the local communities that rely on tourism.

Furthermore, while limiting access to the island sounds legit, it might not show improvement as much as predicted. The enclosure will not protect Maya Bay or Boracay from other critical threats, for example, contamination that might flow from other areas. Even in a case of reserves, effectiveness will be extremely compromised if there is no adequate protection of ecosystem outside reserves. However, a design and implementation strategy based on a scientific finding in the area might greatly enhance effectiveness. That being said, the efficacy of enclosure must be explicitly addressed by conservation measure inside and outside the protected area.

One strategy that can be used to protect an area without compromising the local income is through a quota system. It is pretty clear that the main problem in Koh Tachai is the amount of tourist that visit the destination is 1400% more than the number of visitors the island can bear. With quota system, the government could limit visitor to 70 per day at the most and charge them with ecosystem services fee.

The idea of quota and ecosystem services fee is not new at all. Antarctic Treaty limit size of ship to maximum 100 passengers on shore at any given time. Meanwhile, since 2007, all visitors traveling to Raja Ampat, Indonesia, have to pay an entrance fee, $100 for foreign visitors and $50 for Indonesian. This fee is eligible for one person for the whole calendar year, visitors will be able to get back to the island without any additional cost throughout the year.

Are tourists willing to pay, though? A research focusing in Koh Phi Phi, Thailand, and Gili Trawangan, Indonesia, found that 79% tourists in Koh Phi Phi and 95% tourists in Gili Trawangan are willing to pay up to more than $25 to get into paradise island.

In Raja Ampat, Conservation International predicts that the visitors’ fees will generate US$1.4 million annually by 2020. The ecosystem service fee from tourism can be used for environmental protection project, and community development to establish a more sustainable business around the touristy area. Using this model, Thailand and The Philippines government might be able to conserve the ecosystem while protecting the livelihood of local communities.

What do you think? Are you willing to pay?


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