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 destinations in Thailand and the Philippines, off your list.

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

This is not the first time Thailand government has used an enclosure strategy to protect ecosystems. In 2016, the government shut down the 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 island, Koh Tachai, remained restricted indefinitely. The official announcement mentioned that overcrowding was the main problem for the small tourist islands. Koh Tachai has the capacity to bear just 70 visitors, but almost 1,000 visitors were descending on the island daily.

In Indonesia, Thomas Egly shows The Guardian’s readers how tourism could ruin a paradise through pictures. He provides 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 offensive to the locals – Lombok’s population is predominantly Muslim, who don’t drink or party. Furthermore, last year, the tourism cruise ship Caledonian Sky damaged 18,882 square meters of coral reef in Raja Ampat in West Papua. This area of Indonesia is part of the coral triangle, the richest and most abundant area of marine biodiversity in the world.

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

The total contribution of tourism and travel to Thailand’s GDP is more than 20%, which is predicted to keep rising to more than 30% by 2027. While Thailand has benefited from tourism, the closure of these islands is predicted to have no significant impact on the government's revenue. The closure of area in southwest Thailand often happens anyway during May to 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 of post-enclosure is unclear.

Boracay’s stakeholders do not approach the new regulations with the same acceptance as their counterparts in Thailand. Tourism Congress of the Philippines is unhappy. While they pledged support to the rehabilitation of the island, they are concerned 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 shutdown 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 legitimate, it might not show as much improvement 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 ecosystems outside reserves. However, a design and implementation strategy based on scientific findings in the area might greatly enhance effectiveness. That being said, the efficacy of enclosure must be explicitly addressed by conservation measures inside and outside the protected areas.

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 that the number of tourists that visit the destination is 1400% greater than the island can bear. With a quota system, the government could limit visitors to 70 per day at the most and charge them higher ecosystem services fees.

The idea of quotas and payments for ecosystem services is not new at all. The Antarctic Treaty limits the size of ships to maximum 100 passengers on shore at any given time. Meanwhile, since 2007, all visitors travelling to Raja Ampat have to pay an entrance fee: $100 for foreign visitors and $50 for Indonesians. This fee allows one person access for the whole calendar year, allowing visitors to return to the island without any additional entry costs throughout the year.

Are tourists willing to pay, though? 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 enter the islands.

In Raja Ampat, Conservation International predicted the visitors’ fees will generate US$1.4 million annually by 2020. The payments for ecosystem services from tourism can be used for environmental protection projects and community development to establish a more sustainable business around the tourist areas. Using this model, Thailand and The Philippines governments might be able to conserve ecosystems while protecting the livelihoods of local communities.

What do you think? Are you willing to pay?

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