The Trouble With Tourism

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For a developing country, dealing with increasing tourism can be an extreme challenge.

After exploring Southeast Asia for a few months, we’ve seen this with our own eyes and through our own experience. Already in Malaysia, but especially in Vietnam, we could see what kind of a weight tourism puts on a country’s infrastructure. And it’s not pretty.

During the past ten years, the tourism in Vietnam has grown from 4,25 million to 15,5 million tourists. Generally, increasing tourism is seen as something positive. When more people visit a country, they bring in more money – and they, with their money, create more opportunities.

The Vietnamese have taken advantage of these opportunities. However, from what we’ve seen, the opportunities come with a cost – especially if you don’t know how to benefit from the opportunities in the long run.

Easy Money

As the amount of tourists visiting a country increases, it becomes very attractive to take a job that has to do with tourism. Driving a taxi, running a homestay or other forms of accommodation, organizing trips and courses, running a restaurant… There’s a lot to choose from.

And those who don’t have the money needed for the investments to drive a taxi or run a homestay or a restaurant, can get money from the tourists by selling smaller items such as fans, scarfs or sunglasses; selling fruit or drinks; or posing for a photo together with a foreigner.

The possibilities seem endless and the money easy – and that makes business in tourism so attractive. However, as there are such easy money sources available, it can become too tempting to get a little bit of extra income while you’re already at it.

That’s what we call haggling (or scamming), something that characterizes many of the Southeast Asian countries.

It can be seen as an opportunity – but it really is not. Not, at least, in the long run.

Short-Term Success

Haggling and tricking tourists for money is so attractive because Vietnam as a country has been poor for a very long time. Many of the locals who haggle are living their life on a day-to-day basis because they don’t know what life brings them the next day, if they even live that long. Therefore, what they gain today, they spend today.

That’s why haggling seems like a good idea for the locals – it gives you the possibility to spend more money today than you did yesterday.

Seen that way, it makes sense. However, when you look at haggling from another perspective, you can see that it only brings you short-term success and is actually more harmful in the long run.

The benefit of having fixed prices with your products is that it allows you to take a peek into the future. If you sell ten t-shirts, all for the price of one dollar, you know you’ll have ten dollars when you’ve sold all ten shirts. And if you, in a month, sell one hundred shirts, you’ll have one hundred dollars. In a year, if you sell one hundred shirts every month, you make 1200 dollar – and that allows you to ask yourself the question:

What do you want to do with that money?

But if you have 100 shirts that you end up selling them for 100 different prices – how much money will you have? Can you do anything extra with it? Is is worth saving the money from todays sales if you don’t know how much you will get for your shirts tomorrow?

Haggling only brings you success in the near future. However, if you’re playing the long game, you are not doing a favor for yourself.

Developing Harmful Behavior

The Vietnamese are not in any way stupid – they know that Westerners have money and that for us, their products and services are cheap. We can afford the price they ask even if they’d ask us a bit more. But that’s where things start to go downhill.

In a taxi, the drivers have taxi meters that tick in an incredible speed and that mean you end up paying four or five times more than the actual cost would have been. In a restaurant, there is one menu for tourists with fixed prices and another for Vietnamese without prices. Somewhere else there are sudden extra costs for something or someone comes up claiming there is a parking fee for motorbikes. And if you need to haggle for the product you want, a tourist will certainly pay a higher price than a local.

It almost becomes worth it to play dirty – but how does that affect your personality, your ethics? In the long run, haggling doesn’t make you a good, trustworthy person. When you’ve lied once, it’s easier to lie again. When you’ve successfully tricked someone, your likely to trick again.

Haggling isn’t sustainable – but it’s too tempting to ignore.

The Bad Loop

Although haggling maybe gives the locals the thrill of debating and is part of their culture, it’s actually more harmful than beneficial for the locals.

It’s not a sustainable way of doing business because it doesn’t build for a better future – or for a better personality. However, that is the only way of business the locals know and because they know it, they can also use it to their benefit when it comes to tourists.

Tourism invites the locals to keep up their harmful behavior. It keeps them in the short-term loop instead of helping them to look longer into the future and help them develop better ways of securing their income.

If the locals would give up haggling and tricking and settle for fixed prices, they could end up with more time and energy – two of the resources needed for making more money. But they can’t see that because they’ve learned to see only the opportunities right in front of them – the opportunities growing tourism gives them.

Vietnam has developed into a lower-middle income country, which means that tricking for money shouldn’t be as necessary than it was before. As their GNP is growing and the average income is on the rise, there shouldn’t be a need for haggling and tricking.

However, it takes a long time to change behavior.

And tourism, for sure, is not helping with this.

 

Vietnam – A Tough Nut To Crack

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Tourist boats taking off in Trang An in Ninh Binh, Vietnam.

During our two months of travel, I’ve written about many of the places we’ve visited, how I’ve felt and experienced the different cities, attractions and the traveling life in general. But writing about traveling in Vietnam has been tough and I’ve been avoiding writing this text for a couple of days now.

Why? Because I’m not having very warm feelings towards this country.

Two months ago, we started off in Thailand which, after leaving Bangkok, was a surprisingly friendly and gentle introduction to Southeast Asia. After Thailand, we travelled to Malaysia, where I experienced my first culture shock but as we got out from Kuala Lumpur, I had a great time exploring the country.

Vietnam, however, continues to be a struggle even after two and a half weeks. I’ll do my best to explain to you why.

Dread Behind Every Corner

We started in Hanoi which was a traffic hell and where we learned the hard way that in this city, the locals are after the tourist’s money.

(The money itself takes a while to get used to: the value of Vietnamese Dong has drastically reduced because of inflation and you end up with a lot of zeros. 25 000 dong equals one euro or one dollar. So, in Vietnam, you have the chance be a millionaire. Your million, however, isn’t very valuable.)

For instance, in a restaurant, there’s a separate menu for tourists with fixed prices and one for the Vietnamese locals without prices. And here, many of the taxis drive according to a taxi meter but some of the meters tick with hell of a speed – an 8-minute trip ends up costing 250 000 dong, more than 10 times we agreed upon with the taxi driver (yes, we got scammed).

We have learned that this hunger for money is the only reason many of the locals are friendly – they want you to buy something from them. Whether it’s tailored clothes, a trip to Halong Bay or just a photo with a Vietnamese fruit seller – they want your money. Or they try to sell you motorcycle parking, a fan or even a squirrel (or maybe it was a photo with the squirrel) – it’s about the money.

Behind every corner there is someone who wants something from you.

And the things is, when you politely say no thank you, their friendliness disappears. Suddenly, the smile fades away and the friendly words feel fake. We have met only a handful of genuinely nice locals – and that’s sad. This has led to the point where we, subconsciously, are taking distance from the Vietnamese people.

The Language Barrier

Another issue has definitely been the language. There are some in Vietnam that can speak good English but the majority in this country can only the basics of it: hello, thank you, one cold beer, bye bye. But that’s all – and that only gets you so far.

In Thailand and in Malaysia, things were very different. In both countries, it was easier to communicate with the locals and deal with unexpected situations such as problems with transportation or food orders. In Vietnam, however, it is almost impossible.

Because there’s a different price for tourists, and it is mostly higher, we would like to bargain or argument for our own benefit. In this country, it has proved to be difficult. For instance, with the taxi scam, the driver kept on yelling police! but didn’t understand (or listen to) a single word we were saying, therefore making it impossible to deal with the situation.

And, in a restaurant, when we tried to explain that we had the same day in that same place gotten a cold water for the price of 10 000 dong, and the lady was now asking for 12 000, and why aren’t we getting the same price again – she didn’t understand but thought we wanted a cold Coke instead (that would have been 15 000 dong).

This leads to the point where we try to avoid all sorts of communication with the Vietnamese people. We just end up loosing and it doesn’t get us anywhere – or we end up having to say no thank you to all their offers on “great” deals and prices and get the fading smiles and some Vietnamese words said in a sour tone.

How To Trust and Understand If…

The continuous trouble with money and the difficulties with communicating have led to the point where we have the feeling that we cannot trust these people.

This is a generalization, of course: some of the hostels and homestays we’ve stayed at have been wonderful and we’ve gotten very good and genuinely nice service.

But the common man we meet on the street, we cannot trust. For me, it’s very difficult to accept this because for the most part I like to give a chance to everyone. I like to give the benefit of the doubt – but here, I’ve been forced to change my attitude.

Trusting would be easier, if we could understand the locals (after all, feelings related to fear come from not understanding). If we could talk with the Vietnamese people, hear about their opinions and views on their country, about the heavy tourism, their view on their history and future, we would be able to understand these people better, meet them differently.

But we cannot. Issues with money and language aren’t solved overnight. Therefore, we are stuck in our situation, in feelings of discomfort and the need for distance from the locals and their culture. We have one week left before leaving this country and flying to the next and I’m happy for it.

Vietnam is a tough nut to crack – and I don’t know if I want to crack it at all.

The Paradise Island Controversy

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The past five days we’ve been on an island that at first glance felt like one of those paradise islands you see on TV or in travel magazines: coconut trees, bright blue ocean and drinks at the sand beach.

When we came here, I was ready to relax by the sea after exploring the north of Thailand.

So, we booked an Airbnb-apartment owned by a lovely retired French couple who fixed us up with a scooter and gave us recommendations on the best beaches and restaurants.

The first day, we took the scooter up the steep hills to a place called The Jungle Club and sat there for three hours just taking in the view. I even cried a little, to be honest, because the view over the sea was so beautiful and I felt so relaxed after the 28-hour-long bus journey from Chiang Rai to Koh Samui.

But after a day or so, the paradise island began to feel like there was something wrong. In a way, at first, we were seeing this one side of the island but then starting to realize the other side of it – like two sides of a coin. One side of it was the perfect beach days and drinks at sunset, while the other side of the coin was a modern colony.

It sounds harsh, I know, but I’ll try to explain why this feeling came to me.

The Expat and Tourist Island

Koh Samui is an island in Southern Thailand with a population of over 63,000. It’s one of the more popular tourist resorts of the country but in addition to a great amount of tourists even in the off-season (as the rainy months are rolling in), there are many expats who live on Koh Samui year-round.

The active expat life is clearly visible on the island.

While driving around the island with the scooter (I was the one sitting in the back and in charge of navigating so I had time to look around while my partner focused on driving alongside all the other vehicles), I could spot French boulangeries, English and Irish pubs, restaurants serving French food or the German currywurst.

The Thai culture, however, shined with its absence in many parts of the island – at least that’s what it felt like while we explored the island.

Of course, there are many local restaurants owned by Thai people and in many of the restaurants, hotels and spas the workers are Thai – but they are all there to serve the tourists, to make them feel comfortable. This is done by serving the food the tourists know and like, and by having the menus in foreign languages the westerners are familiar with.

Or if they are not the ones in charge of the usually small family businesses, they are the ones to do the service work for the westerners. They drive the car, clean the house and the pool, cook the food or provide other necessary services. The Thai people just as the rest of us need to make their living – and the rich westerners are there to give it to them.

In one way, there’s nothing wrong with this. But the thing is, it comes with a cost.

Oh, The Controversies

Koh Samui is a paradise – if you have the right kind of house, scooter and car for it. All around the island we could see new construction building up these houses that are advertised as luxury pool villas. The houses with many bedrooms are built out of concrete painted white, a terrace looking over the view and a pool to swim in.

But oh, the controversies in this perfect picture.

Water is regarded as something precious here and tourists are asked to save water whenever possible – but the villas need to have their pools to be attractive to those with the money to buy them.

Concrete is far from the more environment-friendly building materials – but it’s cheap to use for building and the demand for villas is growing.

The main source of income for the island is tourism and the streets are filled with small food stalls selling fresh fruit shakes, pork and chicken on a stick and coconut water – but there is nowhere else to put the plastic trash than on the ground. The amount of trash in this country is shocking.

It’s like the westerners have taken over the island and they do it at whatever cost on the environment and the local culture as long as they get their paradise.

Missing the Local Culture

The tourism and the expat life on this island are the ones that make it thrive, yes, but at the same time they are the ones killing the island, slowly but surely. During our first two weeks of travel, I had gotten used to the northern cities where it was often a struggle to find a way of communicating with the locals, where in many restaurants the menus were primarily in Thai and the city was about their own culture. I can’t say they have the same here – and it makes me sad.

It even feels a bit wrong to be here, to support the very western culture of this island and I can’t help but wonder how the local Thai people feel about the development. Are they truly okay with working for the westerners? Are they aware of the environmental damage this kind of tourism is doing to their beautiful island?

As we are leaving the country to the next (hello, Malaysia!), I’m left with mixed feelings about the South. I loved the Thai food here, the ocean and the amazing landscape, but the enjoyment comes with a cost – even I, a westerner, am adding to by being here.

Investing To Know Yourself

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It was Friday, the sun was setting and we had just finished the typical Ikea-meal: meatballs and mashed potatoes with brown sauce and lingonberry jam. We decided to check the outlet-corner (or the Corner of Findings as it’s called) before hitting the rest of the store, curious to see what they had there.

We have never actually found anything we wanted in the outlet, the furniture being either too expensive or unnecessary for us, but this time my partner spotted a grey armchair on the staff-side of the outlet, kept behind a red-white line that separated the customers from the staff space. We walked to the red-white line to take a closer look at the chair (both curious because we planned on getting armchairs for the new apartment instead of a sofa) when a staff member asked if we wanted to step over the line and try sitting in the chair. Yes, please!

We stepped over the line to the staff-only-space, and I got to test-sit the chair first.

Let me tell you – it was  the  p e r f e c t  chair.

It wasn’t too soft, it wasn’t too hard, it was just perfect (and yes, it was a total Goldilocks moment). And apparently I looked so comfortable sitting in that chair that the staff member reminded me friendly not to fall asleep there. He had a point – the chair felt so comfortable I could have taken a nap in it right then and there.

However, we left Ikea without the perfect armchair. Why? Because 1) the price was not exactly student-friendly, and 2) we aren’t staying in the next apartment too long which made me think it was unnecessary to invest in that kind of armchair for such a short amount of time. It wasn’t an easy decision because I really wanted the chair, but the facts spoke against buying it so we left the grey armchair to the outlet.

Yet, in the evening (after we had returned from the 2,5 hour-long trip to Ikea) my partner asked me this: although the chair was expensive and even though I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it for a very long time – wasn’t I worth that perfect chair? Why wouldn’t I enjoy the perfect chair as long as I could, and invest not in the chair but in myself?

And that was an excellent question. What was I actually doing when I decided not to buy that chair that was so comfortable, so perfect? What kind of logic is it, and is it a sensible logic in the long run?

Cheap Living

I’ve been a student now for five years. I’ve lived on my own, handled my own money and been responsible for many adult-life-things, including my finances. Being a student with a very limited monthly income means that I’ve also lived as cheaply as possible for the past years. It has become a routine of some sort: comparing prices at the food store, making detailed grocery lists, avoiding spontaneous shopping and so on.

Especially after I returned from Ireland in the Fall of 2016, having studied there for one semester as an exchange student, I started paying more attention to my finances. That had most probably to do with the fact that when I came back I had less than 20 euros on my bank accounts (not my most glorious days, to be honest). Before Ireland I hadn’t really considered how I consumed my money – but now I decided to take action, never wanting to be in a similar economic situation again.

Today and two years later, after returning from The Green Island, the situation is quite different. I’ve become more conscious about my incomes and expenses. Together with my partner, we’ve managed to minimize our expenses, and I’m doing my best to update an Excel-file every week to keep an eye on our money.

During these last couple of years, I’ve managed to build an economic buffer for myself for emergency cases, for a rainy day or simply to be able to invest that money someday in something. But as I’ve reached this state of economic ”welfare”, it has made me think: I’ve been saving and saving and saving, 10–15 percent of every payment I’ve received on my bank account from subsidies to study loans to salary. That has been a plan that has worked better than I expected. But when have I saved enough? Or, rather: when can I put my savings into good use? I mean, the money isn’t just supposed to sit there on that bank account until the day I leave this world, right?

Right?

Because, as I wondered about the armchair I had left in Ikea, I asked myself this: how do I know when to skimp and save the money, and when to invest in myself and in my own life? After living the life of a student for so long, do I even know what investing in myself is anymore?

Rerouting the Thinking

As I’ve been living cheaply/economic-consciously for the past couple of years it has become almost like a lifestyle. The economical thinking is rooted into my thought-system and turns on automatically when I’m making choices. In one way, this is extremely helpful, giving me the continuity in cheap living – but when seen from another perspective, it gets a bit tricky.

I feel that this kind of autonomous cheap thinking twists the way I see myself and what I’m worthy of. Often I find myself thinking ”I cannot afford this” and opting for the cheaper alternative instead. Or I leave the object in the store, thinking that ”maybe I don’t need it anyway”. And in one way, again, this is helpful – but then again, I wonder this: do I hinder myself from buying something that could give me great joy simply because I think I can’t afford it?

As the amount of money on my savings account has been increasing slowly but surely, I’ve become more aware of the fact that there are actually quite a lot I could afford. But it’s amazingly difficult to try to switch from that cheap thinking to investment thinking – mostly because when I find something that feels worthy to invest in, those items tend to be the more expensive ones. But if I really want those things and think they will help me do the things I love to do – aren’t they worth the investment?

(By the way – although I’m talking about having money on my savings account and being able to afford things, it doesn’t mean I’m in any way wealthy. I do okay, mostly thanks to government subsidies and a study loan, but I rarely eat out or buy new clothes.)

Investing In Yourself

There is a thing I’ve thought about a good deal after that Friday night in Ikea:

I need to invest in myself to know who I am and what I enjoy.

If that money stays on that savings account from here to eternity, simply growing in amount, why have I been saving it in the first place? Isn’t saving money supposed to be about saving for things you enjoy or want to try out?

If you never invest that money you’ve so patiently been saving, how will you ever learn to know yourself and what kind of things you enjoy? If you only leave cheap, always skimping and thinking ”I can’t afford this” although you do, have you actually lived life to the fullest at all?

During this move we’ve made oh-so-many choices from carpets to chairs to lamps, and it’s been a constant balancing between what to invest in and where to save the money. And the conclusion we have come to in this decision-making process is that if the item you are thinking about helps you get closer to where you want to be or helps you to do what you enjoy, then it’s worth the more expensive one (that also tends to be better quality).

(For instance, the carpet we picked for our livingroom is an investment in our creativity. We call it the jungle mat as it’s a crazy jungle-themed dark-colored carpet with birds and other jungle-like things, and it’s thought-provoking to look at.)

So, after this lengthy thought process on Friday night, we woke up a bit earlier the next morning, drove the car to Ikea five minutes before they opened the doors, raced to the Outlet of Findings, and I bought the chair.

I bought the chair for myself.

I bought the chair because 1) it is comfortable, 2) it doesn’t make my butt hurt, 3) I can see myself drinking my morning coffee in it, reading books and sometimes even writing while sitting in it. In a way, investing in this chair is also an investment in my creative process and my well-being.

And that’s something, isn’t it?

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How much effort do you put into your choice-making when you’re buying something new? What do you think about when making that choice?