Sustainable Tourism on the Coasts of Southeast Asia
My family’s recent tour of countries and coastlines in Southeast Asia yielded good and bad news. The bad news is that beaches bordering the Andaman Sea are being overrun, ironically, by folks like me. The good news is that some countries and hotels located along these shores show an appreciation of the need for environmentally sustainable practices. While this concern for sustainability is welcome, I wonder about the prospect of green consciousness and policies spreading fast and far enough to save some of the world’s most desirable travel destinations from ecological collapse due to overuse. I also ponder whether there are any lessons for us in Laguna Beach.
Of the three countries we toured–Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand–Singapore showed by far the greatest level of environmental awareness. Staying at the Swissotel in Singapore, we explored by subway and on foot a number of sites, among them the Maritime Experiential Museum and Marine Life Park. The latter features the S.E.A. Aquarium, reputedly the world’s largest. There we saw the diverse array of aquatic life inhabiting the waters of Southeast Asia, from the smallest jellies and exquisitely colorful tropical fish to large Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins and silvertip sharks. The aquarium was packed with visitors, including numerous children, who were doubtlessly absorbing the beauty and wonders of underwater sea life. For many of the children this may have been the beginning of their education in ocean ecology.
Singapore’s seriousness about environmental sustainability was evidenced in the Marina Barrage, an urban reservoir completed in 2008 that impounds fresh water from five rivers, while keeping seawater from entering this large catchment basin. Adjacent to the Barrage we saw a Solar Park featuring 405 panels that generate 50 percent of the power used to supply indoor lighting for structures in the area. Nearby, a so-called green roof the size of four soccer fields shielded and insulated a large pumping station located beneath the roof garden. A more modern example of government-sponsored sustainability would be hard to imagine.
Moving northward to Malacca, Kuala Lumpur, and Penang–all in Malaysia–we saw little evidence of sustainability thinking, aside from our hotels offering guests the option of not having their bedding washed daily. Street litter, especially in the poorer parts of cities, was also much more pervasive than in clean, green Singapore.
After a week in Malaysia, we flew to Phuket, Thailand, for some needed relaxation and snorkeling in the emerald-colored, clear, warm water of the Andaman Sea, whose sunsets were among the most stunning I’ve ever seen. From our hotel at Kata Noi Beach, we went by speed boat on a snorkeling excursion to James Bond Island (so-named for the shooting of a Bond film) and Khai Island. The good snorkeling was eclipsed by the multitude of tourists and tour boats overwhelming these specks of land surrounded by the Andaman Sea. The otherwise scenic beaches showed evidence of wear and tear, including empty plastic bottles, numerous cigarette butts in the sand, and Styrofoam fragments.
Our next stop was Railay Beach in the district of Krabi, Thailand. My wife and I went for a one-mile ocean swim along the picturesque coast, kayaked, and snorkeled in the pristine waters of Maya Bay, Ko Phi Phi Lay Island. Underwater visibility extended at least 100 feet, and the numerous eye-catching tropical fish were seemingly outnumbered only by the tourists like us. Still, the beach needed litter-pick-up. As we had done earlier, my wife and I gathered as much of the refuse as we could carry, depositing it in the nearest trash receptacle we could find.
Beach litter and pollution are familiar to us in Laguna. What more could we and should we all be doing?
Tom Osborne, a recipient of Laguna Beach’s Environmental Award, wrote “Pacific Eldorado: a History of Greater California.”