A couple of weeks ago, the white sandy beach of Maya Bay was closed indefinetely by the authorities of Thailand. The reason, mass tourism. As simple as that. The magic scenery made famous thanks, or because of, the Leonardo DiCaprio movie “The Beach” was literally wrecked by the continuous flow of incoming tourists since it was shot to fame by the movie.
Maya Bay was recorded to be the most popular tourist destination in Thailand over the past years receiving up to 5000 tourists and 200 boats a day. While the great affluence of tourists has considerably supported the local economy in the short term, it has seemingly damaged the location in the long term. Focusing on the short-term gains, the Thai government did not take action to protect the area despite increasing evidence of the negative impact of mass tourism in this area. It is true that the activity was generating approx. 12M$ per year, however the focus on short-term monetary gains is currently destabilizing the whole area.
After multiple years of hesitating to take action, the Thai government made a strong stand by closing the bay indefinitely to protect the area. A blunt and courageous move that is rare in today’s politics and it shows the consideration for the long-term sustainability of the area. Refusing the sirens of short-term gains towards longer-term benefits. We all know the story of the goose with the golden eggs, well that is kind of the same thing. The authorities decided to protect the bay area from the massive amount of tourists with the associated piles of garbage that are being thrown in the ocean, the pollution of waters because of the boats and the spoliation of the limited natural resources of the island.
Taking a bit of a distance with the story, it is interesting to see that one of the major Hollywood actors, Leonardo DiCaprio, and one of the most visible defenders of the environment on the international stage through funding of various sustainability projects and the now infamous speech at the United Nations was actually, because of his fame, also the reason of the decay of this heavenly part of the Ko Phi Phi Leh island. Meat for thought on whether fame is the cause or is it a tool towards more sustainability and the possible duality of everybody’s actions. The beach significantly participated in DiCaprio’s fame and now it is a clear example of how humans can spoil natural beauty … A cause that DiCaprio is defending!
When will the beach be re-opened? We hope that the Thai authorities will take its time to come up with a sustainability plan before reopening the site, paving the way towards ecotourism and showing best practices in the matter. Hopefully, this case will be an example to be followed and not just a temporary solution.
The tranquility of strolling around in Bali is unmatched, even by the freshest of juices at a hot summer afternoon (it is good to remember these days with the winter coming!). But travelling has an impact on the environment. And it is not only about taking a plane to get to a destination, the pressure tourism has on the local resources, the change in the economic activity, positive and negative, may have much more impacts than we think.
It is a statement I read about the ratio of water consumption in residential area versus hotels that got me thinking of: how to quantify the impact of tourism on local environments? In this article, I try to provide a simplistic answer to this question from the point of view of a curious citizen and not from the perspective of an environmental expert.
Water consumption, water consumption … 5 times !!!
Speaking at German trade show ITB in Berlin Dr. Stroma Cole, director of Equality in Tourism highlighted that it is the sustainable management of water that will be the major vector of driving tourism in the coming years. She also mentioned that Bali will be facing a critical point at 2020 concerning the water supply and demand. This conclusion is based on the findings of several monitoring organisations, for example the Bali Hotel Association (BHA) and Howarth HTL where they report that the assumed per capita daily use of fresh water is of 183 liters, whereas for a 2 stars hotel the consumption is of 1000 liters. Knowing that lots of hotels are 2+ stars in Bali, the water consumption ratio is likely to be more than 1 to 5. For statistics concerning the number of hotels and their ratings please refer to this document.
Now hold on a second, I have been to Bali a couple of times, and I don’t remember that I drank this much of additional water in comparison with my usual daily dose! That is correct, but it does not take into account the magnificent pools, giant flower pots and other fountains and gardens that nicely decorate most of the hotels ! My gut feeling would be then to agree with the statement that the popularity of Bali as vacation destination has a significant impact on the water reserves.
So starting from this point, I started to look for the available open and free data to see if this makes any sense at all. Keeping an open mind to avoid falling in the trap of finding what I am looking for !
Trying to locate the pressure
The first dataset I looked for was statistics on the number of travellers flying to Bali to see how these fluctuated over the past decade. I found an open dataset (here) coming from the Indonesian government that showed a continuous increase in the number of tourists climbing from 2 millions to approximately 11 million visiting tourists in 2014. Moreover the data showed the number of tourists who checked-in the different attraction over the beautiful island.
The most visited region of Bali in 2014 was the south west region of Tabanan that accounts for about 40% of all tourists.
The following map shows the relative weight of each region in the constant growth of tourists.
As you can see, the region that have seen a significant increase in the number of tourists is the region situated at the south and center of the island. The sandy beaches of Kuta, the temple of Tanah Lot are major attractions in Bali. One may think that given the small size of the island, tourists have the choice of staying in the north or the center for example and visit these areas on day tours. This would mean that the increase of residential areas in these regions can be reasonable to avoid putting major stress on the infrastructures through the creation of hotels for example. Trying to identify patterns of growth of residential areas is something that earth observation data by satellites does great thanks to the global coverage and the diversity of sensors.
Earth observation data to the rescue !
The European Commission’s Joint research center (JRC) has deployed significant effort to map built-up areas across the planet. The result of this effort are an open source, open tools, map layers that are available here. So I thought, perfect, let’s use this to see how the urban areas evolved over Bali over time. The results, shown in the following map, that show the evolution from 1975 to 2015, seem to be inline with the tourism influx shown in the previous map. Yeah, one of the advantages of using satellite imagery is that we can go back in time to do spatial analysis.
How about population growth
The million dollar question now is whether this increase in residential areas is only related to an increase in the number of tourists accommodation areas or whether they are related to normal increase in population. According to the official reports of the Indonesian government (here), the population in Bali has almost doubled in the period from 1971 to 2010, rising from 2.1 Million to 3.8 million persons (circa 1.1% growth rate over the last decade).
While this population growth may help explain the increase in population in the dense urban centers (the red points in the previous map), it does not explain the increase in the low density urban clusters (shown by the green areas on the map). Another indicator is the sheer increase in the number of hotels in Bali over the past decade. Indeed, according to the market analysis report issued by Colliers international (here), the number of hotels, budget and luxury hotels combined, has almost doubled over the period from 2005 to 2015. This seems to be inline with the continuous increase in the number of tourists coming to Bali.
Should we stop going to Bali ??! No way ..
Factually speaking, the earth observation data show that there is a construction pressure, the stats show there is a significant increase in tourist influx and that there might be correlations with the number of hotels as the number of hotels being built-up is in continuous increase. This gives food for thought, first on how available data might be used to indicate certain trends in pressure on available resources.
The objective of these reflexion is not to refrain you from going to your favourite vacation spot, but to think about the possible impact. Maybe one of the solutions would be to avoid touristy centers and stay in a non-traditional places, beside being sure to have unique experiences, you also avoid putting the pressure on resources on critical areas.
A concrete example would be for example to stay at the west or north of Bali where there is less pressure on water consumption rather than staying in the south. You will still be able to visit your favourite spots over a day trip and you will enjoy less crowd and more personalized experiences.
Now what ?
The Guidexplorer team will be happy to provide you with a customized study for your next vacation destination to help you pick up the right “environment friendly” hotel, and we are not talking about using bamboo sticks instead of forks but rather which hotel area you should choose to minimize the pressure on local resources. If you are interested, send us a message at email@example.com
Bon voyage ! And do not hesitate to reach out with your comments !
(Disclaimer: Guidexplorer has absolutely no interest in guiding the travelers to specific parts of Bali)