Tourists walk amongst trash washed up on Bali's Kuta beach pushed to shore by seasonal winds. Photo: Wira Suryantala/Antara Foto

Tourism is the industry that keeps on giving for Southeast Asian nations, but arrival numbers may need to be reduced to rescue crowded coastal destinations from a quagmire of pollution and overdevelopment.

Thailand, which now generates as much as 20% of gross domestic product (GDP) from tourism and related industries, has been periodically closing resort islands and dive sites since 2011 to allow time for the regeneration of vulnerable coral reefs.

In March, the government announced that Maya Bay on the western island of Koh Phi Phi, made famous by the movie The Beach, would shut for four months from June to allow for regeneration from ever-rising tourist numbers.

Pattaya, a popular beach destination, particularly with Chinese tourists, has poor water quality despite years of clean-up efforts. On the Thai island of Phuket, the popular Patong beach is also viewed as borderline for its water contamination.

Thailand is not alone. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte recently ordered that the tourist island of Boracay would close for up to six months, effective from later this month, after 51 resorts and establishments were found to be dumping sewage into the sea.

A sewage pipe is seen along the shore of Bulabog beach on Boracay island, Philippines April 10, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

Risk assessments have also found unsafe levels of human waste and heavy metals off beaches on Indonesia’s Bali island, linked partly to tourism.

Vietnam’s most popular resort strip along Mui Ne is rapidly deteriorating due to poor building practices that have led to beach erosion, as well as pollution. Duong Dong (Long Beach) on the island of Phu Quoc is littered with waste and sewage from hotels and the village’s fishing anchorage.

Even Myanmar, the region’s emerging tourism jewel, appears to have caught the same plaque. Ngapali Beach, which now gets more than one million visitors a year, is threatened by inefficient waste management standards, indiscriminate mining of sand, and largely unregulated resort planning.

With all that bad news maintaining tourist interest will be a challenge, but the region can ill-afford to lose an industry that earns more than US$200 billion and employs about 12 million people. It contributes 14% of GDP in Cambodia, 7% in Vietnam and 4%-5% in most other regional economies.

The problem is that tourism’s fate is only partly in its own hands. Pollution issues are frequently caused by inland industries like mining and timber which wash their waste into rivers that feed into coastal estuaries.

Fishing is a big polluter in Vietnam, ports dirty waters on Thailand’s eastern seaboard, Bali is polluted by metals from jewelry makers, and fertilizers leak out of farmland to coastal areas popular with tourists throughout the region.

A polluted Southeast Asian beach, August 17, 2017. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

None of Southeast Asia’s 10 countries ranked highly for environmental sustainability in the Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index compiled by the World Economic Forum in 2017. Indonesia was 131st out of the 136 nations assessed, Cambodia 130th, Vietnam 129th, Malaysia 123rd, Thailand 122nd, the Philippines 118th and Laos 98th.

(Myanmar and Brunei were not included in the study; Singapore ranked 51st.)

Scores were dragged down by poor protection of forests and species. The picture is brighter for the more specific sustainability of travel and tourism industry development index in all countries other than Vietnam (ranked 102nd) and Cambodia (96).

Both countries are judged to have among the worst regulatory frameworks; Thailand also has big regulatory gaps, but they are gradually being closed.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has led efforts to make tourism more accountable through a package of “Green Standards” for hotels, but governments often are guilty of protecting politically connected offending firms.

In February, a Vietnamese court sentenced activist Hoang Duc Binh to 14 years in jail for campaigning over a chemical spill that polluted 125 miles of north-central coastline in 2016. Taiwan’s Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Company finally took the blame and paid US$500 million of compensation.

Indonesia announced revisions to its Criminal Code last week that will make it harder to prove an environmental crime was committed and weaken sentences for violations. The decision reverses tighter laws imposed in 2009.

With 100 million people now descending on Southeast Asian destinations each year, tourism leaders may have to come up with their own options for sustaining the industry.

Limiting arrival numbers is not a palatable solution considering the potential economic losses, but the Tourism Council and World Travel (TCWT) said in a report that it supported “smoothing visitors over time” to remove imbalances.

Tourists at a beach bar along Seminyak beach, just north of Kuta, in Bali, Indonesia. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Venice and Barcelona, two of Europe’s biggest destinations, are both looking at options for reducing arrivals. Dubrovnik (Croatia) and the island of Santorini (Greece) will now accept only 8,000 tourists at one time.

The Seychelles group of islands, meanwhile, has banned the construction of new hotels to deter visitors; tourists can only visit the Galápagos Islands for 15 days.

Machu Picchu in Peru will impose strict conditions on visits from 2019 to reduce the number of trekkers. Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera capped arrivals at 1.5 million and the Ligurian coast is looking at similar measures.

Convincing Southeast Asian resorts to turn tourists away won’t be easy. As the TCWT report noted, arrival limits are “likely to provoke opposition from those who may lose income — or fail to see growth — as a result.”

But it added: “Perhaps surprisingly, many of the private sector leaders who spoke with us agreed that some destinations are hitting their limits. What they want is to operate within clear, consistently enforced regulations.”

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