Overtourism — a disease or a symptom?


MERCEDES Hutton is a very important and respected lady. She reviews beaches and other tourist spots for South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

One of her recent posts describes the plight of the super-famous Lake Baikal, located in southern Siberia, Russia.

As Mercedes correctly illustrated that it is the world’s largest freshwater lake by volume — the deepest, the oldest and one of the clearest lakes. But Baikal is also the latest victim of a phenomenon called overtourism.

Locals will tell you that “overtourism”, as far as they are concerned, is the “Chinese invasion”.

Last year alone saw a 37% rise in the number of Chinese travellers to the area. But despite the increase, Chinese visitors only accounted for 186,200 people of Baikal’s 1.6 million visitors last year, said Hutton. The rest are largely Russians.

Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it? To put it in context, take Boracay Island in the Philippines (and Hutton mentioned it, too). That paradise had to be closed down for six months last year for a thorough cleaning exercise.

Several of Thailand’s beach paradises, as well as Bali in Indonesia, are also suffering a similar fate.

Blaming China and its people for everything thinkable is easy. But then, I remember Boracay in the 1980s when my Australian friend Greg opened his first six chalets. And these were Australians, not Chinese, who virtually owned and crowded that island for years.

The previous century’s tourists are largely Americans or Europeans. You could hardly see timid Asians in their own paradise.

The change we see now only reflects a simple fact — we live in an Asian century.

The phenomenon of overtourism is separate from global politics or race. It may be a disease, but what if it’s only a symptom?

There are two basic types of tourism. One is educational like going to Rome or Beijing, seeing places you know from reading history books and visiting the museums.

That, too, can murder a city. Look at the constant fear about Venice in Italy with its precarious eco-balance. But I’m referring to the other kind of tourism, the one you see in Baikal (or Altai) Russia or Boracay, the Philippines.

“You can stay in our mountains for weeks without seeing anyone, unless you need to go down to the village to get some food,” I was told by my host in Altai a couple of years ago. “And then you can ride in the steppe, just like how the Genghis Khan army did 800 years ago. It’s the same steppe.”

I remembered Greg luring me to his hotel, saying “You don’t even see other people’s faces unless you want to and you can do absolutely what you like. There is nobody there to even care”.

The great Russian poet Boris Grebenshikov describes the bliss: “You step into the fields, you throw your mobile over your shoulder and say: Hey, hey, hey.”

All these paradise beaches, forests and hilly wonders of the world began from humans’ desire to get away from other people and do what they like. And soon you discover that the forest or the beach becomes “overtouristed”. And people begin to look for other places where they can say “Hey, hey, hey”.

There may technologies to restore these ruined former paradises. But how about the reasons that drive people — Westerners or Asians alike — to places where they can feel free?

You may talk about a culture clash when you see the Chinese where there only used to be locals or Western visitors.

And there were the Arabs before that, in Malaysia’s case. But in Baikal (and even Altai), it’s mostly the locals who are turning the pristine world into yet another crowded horror.

What I call a disease, it is not when there are too many people in a certain place or in the world in general. A disease is when these people begin to discipline each other and place bans and restrictions on formerly ordinary daily behaviour.

These people may belong to different races, or to the same one. But when they start inventing new behavioural rules, restricting others and telling them not to say, write or do so many things…

At first, millions of people work 11 months a year to get out and search for another paradise where there are no rules. Then, they ruin all these paradises. I hate to think about what they may do to relieve the pressure from these limitations.

Dmitry Kosyrev is an author of 8 novels and a book of short stories as well as a columnist for 2 Moscow publications. Orientalist by education (Moscow University), he has a special love for Malaysia.