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Khiri Travel Insider Tip: Islands in a Sea of Challenges

Regional Director Indochina, Jack Bartholomew, discusses about the two sides of tourism development. The islands of Southeast Asia are facing the ongoing challenge to balance infrastructure development with economic and social sustainability and conservation of cultural authenticity and natural resources.

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The first thing many travelers think about before coming to experience Southeast Asia is spending time on a beach enjoying some time detached from the rest of the world. However, with the rapid development of tourism in Indochina, some of the region’s most popular islands are changing dramatically. An increase in infrastructure projects and the arrival of big-brand hotels is contributing to the changing face of these idyllic getaways.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom – tourism can and does have a positive effect on these destinations as well. The Indochinese peninsula is home to an array of islands of different sizes and different stages of development. On Phu Quoc, in the south of Vietnam and Indochina’s largest island, you can see how the arrival of travelers has led to improvement in infrastructure. The need for roads, hotels and restaurants created jobs for the local population and attracted professionals from Vietnam’s larger cities. Even consultants from Europe came to the island to share their knowledge and expertise with the local population.

Cat Ba Island in North Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay is another case. The arrival of tourism brought both opportunities and challenges. The island is home to several development programs– the WWF, Fauna & Flora International and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). These international NGOs have all run projects on the island. The overall aim is ensure the environment is preserved, the cultural authenticity remains unspoiled and economic operations that provide benefits to the communities and alleviate poverty continue.

Tourism can also contribute positively to the culture protection of an island. Don Daeng Island nestled in Si Phan Don (4,000 Islands) in southern Laos is the Mekong River’s “Island of Culture.” Located near Champassak, the satellite town of the Vat Phou UNESCO World Heritage Site, there are pre-Angkor ancient stupas on the island from the Vat Phou era. The local community on this small island benefits directly from providing the accommodation, guides, transport and locally produced food for visitors. As an important source of revenue, the shrines and the nearby cultural site of Wat Phou are all protected as a result.

Looking to the future, other developing Islands in Indochina will face similar challenges. The increased accessibility to some of the fantastic islands off the coast of Cambodia has led to several developments. The arrival of Song Saa, a private island developed for ecotourism has helped raise the standard for island development in Cambodia. Other islands that were very quiet a few years ago such as Koh Rong have seen a boom in tourism arrivals. While this has been great news for the local families who can shape a living around this tourism boom, there are long-term environmental and economic sustainability challenges for the island.

On developing islands the challenges of balancing the economic benefits and the negative effects such as noise, environmental degradation and a potential devaluation of the local culture are all there. The better income, better quality of life, increased educational opportunities and infrastructure development all help contribute to a better standard of living for the local population. When traveling on any of these islands it’s good to do so through a sustainability lens. Travelers should aim to support local businesses, especially ones that conserve natural resources and contribute to the overall well being of local communities.

Jack Bartholomew
Regional Director Indochina


For more information about an excellent island escape to Phu Quoc or Cat Ba in Vietnam, Vat Phou or Don Daeng in Laos or Song Saa or Koh Rong in Cambodia, please leave your contact information in the yellow form below.

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