Sunday, 8 May 2011

What would you do, if you had a Garden of Eden?

A highlight of the Phuket trip was our day trip to the Phi Phi islands. They are fantastically beautiful, complete with soft beaches, snorkeling with schools of rainbow-colored fish, and huge gnarled limestone cliffs plunging into the depths of the crystalline blue sea.
But, while I had brought my camera expecting to take pictures of these things, I found my lens often pointing at something else: tourists.

Our tour's first stopping point, Maya Bay, was featured in the movie The Beach, where (supposedly -- I haven't seen the movie) Leonardo DiCaprio and his friends discover it to be an island paradise unvisited by tourists and occupied by only a few people.

Leo saw it like this. This is how it was when we were there. (to be fair, the scenery was still there too, only partially obscured by flocks of tourists and boats)
Our 35-passenger tour boat, as it turns out, is not the only one that goes there every day. There are so many boats that there isn't enough beach space to park them all at once -- the boats have to go to shore, drop off their passengers, and then leave the bay for a while to allow other boats in. 45 minutes later, they come back and pick up the passengers, who have been frolicking about on the beach and in the water, smiling, getting sunburned and taking pictures of each other doing silly things.
like, for example, lying in the sand and getting sand in their bikini.
For some reason this was a popular thing to do.
Of course, that's exactly what we were doing, too! Later, when we went snorkeling, I'm sure we looked a lot like this school of floating bodies:

They're not dead; they're just looking at fish.
The one thing we didn't participate in was oohing and aahing at the monkeys. "At Monkey Beach," the tour guide had told us before departure, "please don't be disappointed if we don't see any monkeys. They spend most of their time up on the ridge, and they only come down when they're hungry." Interesting, I thought. What food do they get down by the water? Do they catch fish or eat crustaceans?

Of course not, silly. They come down to get watermelon from the tourists.
A bunch of monkeys. Most are on a boat, with cameras. There also some in the trees, eating watermelon.
Rose and I didn't take much part in this particular activity, since in Singapore we've seen our share of monkeys, done our share of oohing and aahing at them, and taken our share of pictures of them. The other tourists payed them a seemingly inordinate amount of attention, scrambling over each other to reach out their watermelon towards the monkeys, or, failing that, chucking watermelon pieces at the monkeys. The monkeys had learned to catch pretty well!

As silly and numerous as the tourists were, I know I enjoyed being one of them. I even think I grew from the experience of visiting this beautiful place. I'm impressed that the island plays host to so many tourists each day and stays as beautiful as it is.

I don't know what restrictions are in place to limit the impact of the tourists on the island and ocean environments, or what maintenance is done to keep it clean. I don't know how much the area has lost by allowing us to flock in in such large numbers. It seems to me though, that if the system can support this level of tourism indefinitely, then tourism is a fantastic use of the area. 

So, what would you do if you found such a beautiful place? Would you keep it to yourself, for your better enjoyment and to make sure it remains pristine? Or, at some risk to the environment, would you let others come and see it?

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