Loved to death
With tourism arrivals tripling over the past two decades, the region has reached a tipping point in terms of its ability to prevent popular destinations from being ruined.
In March, Thai authorities ordered the temporary closure of Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh Island for the first time since 1999 to halt the environmental damage caused by too many tourists. A month later the Philippine island of Boracay, one of the world's most famous beach destinations, was closed for the same reason.
Fast forward six months and Boracay is ready to reopen with a cleaner beach and clearer water. Roads have been repaired, walkways built, and the capacity of the sewage treatment system increased. Tourists will be allowed back in phases, starting this coming Friday.
Maya Bay was also supposed to reopen this month, along with other marine national parks in the Andaman Sea, following their annual rehabilitation closure. But authorities said years of overcrowding at the spot made famous by the Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach had taken too great a toll on the fragile marine ecological system. Now it has been closed indefinitely.
Similan National Park in Phangnga province remains open but visits have been capped at 3,850 per day, compared with around 7,000 a day to the gorgeous but overburdened marine park last year.
"The Thai tourism industry has done so many things right but you have challenges such as environmental degradation at some of the southern beaches and these issues need to be addressed. It's encouraging to see that we are now talking about these things openly," Randy Durband, CEO of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, told Asia Focus.
International tourist arrivals in Asia Pacific totalled 323 million last year -- more than three times as many as in 1996. A huge number of these travellers are from China and 10 million of them came to Thailand.
With annual arrivals to Thailand reaching 35 million, against just 10 million at the start of the century, its most popular destinations are strained to the breaking point.
But closing destinations as Thailand and the Philippines have done is not a long-term solution, as so many people and communities depend on tourism for their livelihoods. Authorities have tried to persuade those affected that a cleaner and healthier destination will be better for everyone in the long run.
Besides ongoing conservation and cleanup efforts, experts say what is really needed are new destinations. The problem has been a lack of promotion and a shortage of adequate facilities.
EXPLORE THEN EXPAND
Many travellers -- probably more than tourist authorities and tour companies realise -- are eager to get off the beaten track. But if there's nowhere to stay or dining and recreation options are limited, their visits will be brief. Safety is also a concern -- Thailand's cause has not been helped by the steady drumbeat of scare stories from the likes of Koh Tao.
"My recommendation is to spend a little longer time in a place and look around. Don't be fooled by the initial offerings that are out there," Willem Niemeijer, the founder and CEO of Khiri Travel, told Asia Focus at the company's recent 25th anniversary celebrations.
Bangkok-based Khiri Travel has won awards for its "passionate" approach to authenticity and uncovering places almost untouched by tourism -- "often just a few blocks away from main tourist sites", as it says on its website. It now has offices in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
In Thailand, Mr Niemeijer says, most of the Northeast remains terra incognita for tourists despite all its charms.
"People keep saying, 'There's nothing here'. All I can say is just stay for a while, go to a restaurant, sit around and ask around because there are things to do," he stressed. "Sooner rather than later you will find a place that will make you say 'Wow!'"
It doesn't take a huge investment to add a handful of attractions to draw people and keep them coming back, he says. For example, canoeing and kayaking, usually associated with ocean destinations, are now on offer at Khao Phu Luang and Lam Pra Pueng Dam in Nakhon Ratchasima.
Governments need to work closely with local people to create new tourist areas. This is not always easy, especially in Isan where long distances and travel time are an issue.
"What's very difficult is what I call destination building," he said. "There are beautiful places in Ubon Ratchathani and Khon Kaen which we know people will enjoy going to, but it is hard for them because people have a limited amount of time."
Mr Durband also sees "great potential" in northern Thailand beyond heavily visited Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, with other "treasures" in Nan and Loei.
"There are Khmer sites in Isan that are as good as anything in Cambodia. Thai people haven't really thought about promoting them and they are a golden opportunity," he added. "If you look at poverty in Isan, if you can bring in some international visitors, that will be good."
The problem with visiting uncharted territory is time, Mr Niemeijer said. Most people have just a short time for vacations and want to "doze off" rather than going to places they don't know about.
"We need the public sector to step in and stop talking about Phuket or Pattaya because everybody knows about them already," he said. "The government and Thailand's tourism industry along with bodies in other countries need to start thinking about how to promote all these other places, because the big hotel names can already carry the weight in popular tourism areas."
Mario Hardy, the CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (Pata), encourages travellers to spend a couple of weeks visiting more countries in Southeast Asia to get a full picture of what the region is all about.
"You have to have that regional perspective where Suvarnabhumi Airport will continue to be a major engine, not just for Thailand but the whole region and I think regional marketing and regional cooperation is very valuable," added Mr Durband.
"Just think of a long-haul traveller coming Europe or the Americas for the first time to Southeast Asia, and they are going to want to see at least two or three countries on their first trip.
"So, if they are happy when they visit Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, everybody else will benefit because they would likely go to visit Malaysia and Indonesia on their next trip as well," he added.
To cope with the challenge of ever-increasing visitor numbers, environmental regulations are "very important", says Mr Niemeijer, but "they have to be enforced".
As well, there needs to be an assurance that local people will benefit from destination building. For example, tourism investors could be offered incentives but only if they employ a certain number of local people.
Khiri Travel started life in 1993 in a room at the Viengtai Hotel in the backpacker area of Banglamphu in Bangkok, handling Thailand and Laos tours for Baobab Reizen of The Netherlands. It expanded to Vietnam after the US trade embargo was lifted in 1994. Mr Niemeijer has seen some positive developments over that time.
"Laos did a very good job about 20 years ago when, at the very early stage of our development, we managed to build a lodge there in the middle of nowhere and we could only do that because we were given a 15-year tax holiday," he said.
"Don't think only about big investors but also think about the smaller and grassroots ones that are looking to do this type of local tourism."
But wherever tourism is developed, it is critical to preserve both natural resources and local culture, says Mr Durband.
"We don't need more places in the world where the nighttime is all about hip-hop music for farangs as there are tremendous opportunities with higher prices for longer stays and maybe more educated visitors," he said. "There is a huge market out there that wants authenticity."
TROUBLE IN PARADISE
As for closing beaches, Mr Hardy says it might be necessary in some cases but there is a right and a wrong way to go about it. Boracay was the latter.
“If the president of the country calls a place a cesspool and you close it down, they could make a conclusion about the entire country based on that. That’s terrible PR for your country” -- RANDY DURBAND, Global Sustainable Tourism Council
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made international headlines in February when he declared that the popular island had become a "cesspool". Two months later it was closed.
"The locals were not consulted and they were not properly informed and for some, this is their only source of income so they had to leave," said Mr Hardy.
Local people should have been hired to clean up the beaches and build the new infrastructure from the start but that didn't happen.
Mr Durband acknowledged that while the Philippine government needed to do something "bold and radical" about Boracay, it "went too far".
"One, the people who were doing the right things got punished. They should have just said that anybody who wasn't hooked up to the sewage line, 'you are out of business today' … but let those who were doing the right things stay in business," he commented.
"This is now a big stain on Philippine tourism and tourism for the region. Long-haul visitors look at the Asean region, in some way, in its totality … and this is a negative for the country as people do not read carefully," he added.
"If the president of the country calls a place a cesspool and you close it down, they could make a conclusion about the entire country based on that. That's terrible PR for your country."
A German hotel owner who has lived on Boracay for more than 30 years told Asia Focus that "nobody really believed it" when President Duterte first threatened to shut the island.
"How can you order an island the size of Boracay to shut down in two months? The island has more than 600 or 700 hotels with up to 2 million visitors per year and almost everything depends on tourism," said the owner, who asked not to be named.
He had to lay off all 20 of his employees. He is now hiring them back in phases in line with the gradual reopening of the island.
This week is only a soft opening or first phase in the revival of Boracay. "Phase 2 will be in April and Phase 3 will be in December . We have to be fair to everybody," Philippine Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo Puyat told CNN on Oct 15.
Meanwhile, the hotel owner is struggling after six months of nearly no income, as he has had to spend $50,000 to $60,000 to keep his family and business afloat.
"From next week on I can probably take one cook back and two waitresses, so maybe around four to five people. … Once my rooms, where most of my income comes from, are filled I should be able to hire more."
He also complained that local workers were not hired to do anything in the first three months of the cleanup operation because there was no plan.
"You are talking about 20,000 to 30,000 people who were all of a sudden out of jobs to do," he said. "In the beginning the emergency plan was to employ around 5,000 people to clean the beaches but that is not enough so they allowed people to catch fish for food and that has now destroyed a lot of diving spots around the island.
"If you closed down an island this size you should need around one year for preparation but it took them almost two or three months before anything happened. Now they are organised and they are working during the nighttime to get it done but this should have been planned and done since the start. They have wasted a lot of time not knowing what to do."