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.

This Is Not A Holiday

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It was the morning of another travel day. We were in the elevator on the way down, carrying our backpacks and ready to check out from the hotel we had stayed in. A woman rode with us down to the ground level and asked us:

“Are you on a holiday?”

I wanted to answer no, but instead, I said yes and smiled. It was easier that way because how could I have explained during those 40 seconds it took to get to the ground floor that this thing that we do is not a holiday, it’s something different?

In the world of travel, there are mainly two reasons to travel: to go on a holiday or to do business. It’s a question they ask when filling out visa forms or arrival cards on the airport, it’s what the locals ask us when we stop to chat with them: are you on holiday?

It’s like the stereotype for travel that makes it easier for people to place you, a foreigner, in their minds: either you’re on holiday just enjoying life or you are traveling to make money.

But as you might now, stereotypes are often very black and white and never quite tell the truth. The same goes for our ‘being on holiday’. For us, being on holiday would mean not having to care about your budget that much, it would  living the life of leisure and drinking mojitos instead of the cheapest beer.

That’s not what we do. The choice between holiday and business completely leaves us out.

So, what are we doing if we’re not on a holiday?

Backpackers?

Someone might say we are tourists. But isn’t tourist as a term a bit old-fashioned already? Back in the days, being a tourist actually meant touring around other countries – my grandfather, for instance, organized touring trips of that kind. All the travelers, the tourists, travelled in the same bus from one country to the other. Every now and then they stopped for lunch that they prepared in the small kitchen in the back of the bus.

That was being a tourist – but touring in a group is quite rare nowadays and we can’t say we would been touring the countries and cities we’ve visited (except for that hop-on hop-off bus in Kuala Lumpur), so… you can’t really call us tourists either.

One term that almost describes what we are doing is backpacking. We are on a low budget, comparing prices and staying in hostels instead of hotels, buying our food from food stalls instead of going to a proper air conditioned restaurant. But I wouldn’t say even backpacking is quite correct.

Yes, we carry all our belongings in our backpacks but, in the end, we carry our backpacks very little – from hostel to the taxi to the bus to the taxi to another hostel. We aren’t counting every penny, saving everywhere it’s possible and we don’t only stay in hostels with 6-bed dorm rooms and a shared bathroom.

So, no. We are not backpackers either, even though we are getting close.

So, for the rest of the world, we are on a holiday because we are tourists or backpackers but all of them are somehow wrong. What are we then, if we don’t fit in any of those descriptions?

Observers?

The best description I’ve come up with is that we are simply living our life while observing the world and society around us. (You might even call it exploring but that sounds too much like a cliché so let’s just stick to observing.) The core elements of being on holiday, being a tourist or a backpacker aren’t a part of our trip, of what we do.

Instead, both me and my partner are critically observing what we see and trying to figure out where the world is going. We wonder why people do things in a certain way when there are more practical and efficient ways of doing those things. We observe the infrastructure, the social norms, how they think and act. How tourism affects these countries we visit and observe.

Many of our observations are critical and yes, it does eliminate some enjoyment from those moments on the beach or chatting with locals or other backpackers. But for us, and for me… it’s hard to close one’s eyes from seeing all the things that are so crooked in the places we visit. It’s difficult not to see the amount of trash thrown away on the ground or in the sea. It’s hard to close my eyes from all the stray cats, the beggars and the efforts of trying to trick money from tourists.

(And still you see other tourists, backpackers and people on holiday go on about their lives in complete blindness. I wonder how they can ignore what they see.)

So, “are you on a holiday?” really should get a completely different answer than a simple yes with a smile.

But I don’t know if that woman in the elevator would have understood us.

Experiencing My First Culture Shock

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In 2016, I did a semester in Galway, Ireland as an exchange student. Before leaving, we were warned several times about something called the culture shock – “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.”

In Ireland, I never experienced those feelings of disorientation because the country is very western and pretty much what I had expected. It was easy to adjust to the culture, to start saying ‘how are you’ to random people on their morning stroll and ordering a pint of Smithwick’s in the pub.

And even after the exchange period, I didn’t even think about culture shock because wherever I went, it was easy for me to adjust and navigate through the customs and norms of the different countries.

But that was when I was traveling in Europe. Now I’m in Southeast Asia – and things are a bit different.

Bugs, Dirt and Worn Out Towels

From Koh Samui we took the bus back to Bangkok and then flew to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We were welcomed by the business city of magnificent sky scrapers and the taxi drive from the airport to our hotel into the middle of the bustling city center felt exciting – something so different after the small cities and islands of Thailand.

But then we checked into our hotel.

“A New Hotel!” the sign said, and the name of the place even had the word royal in it. But when we got into our room… I’ve never cried because of accommodation but now I did. Partly because I was so very tired after many days of energy consuming travel, but partly because of the shock of how much worse the room was compared to the thai standard we had learned to know and deal with.

Why it was a shock, you wonder? Well…

The bed sheets were filled with holes and dirt that doesn’t come off anymore. The walls were dirty, the paint was peeling off, the towels felt and looked like they had been used for 10 years already. The wi-fi didn’t work, there was a smell, we had no window in the room and worst of all – there were so many bugs who liked to spend their time crawling on the beds.

I wanted to check out from the hotel the same second we had checked in, I was sure I couldn’t take it for the three nights we had booked at this place. However, my partner convinced me to wait a moment, that we would consider everything after we had eaten some food.

Realizing the Social Norms

Food helped me take a breath, to gather my thoughts. The friendliness of the locals also helped a great deal. We decided to look around the nearby city quarters, check out the Chinatown and even hop on a tourist bus to see the city. For a few hours, everything was okay and I managed to forget the hotel room I didn’t want to return to.

But then the evening came and I started noticing more things that didn’t feel quite alright. How there were almost no women on the streets, only some other female tourists and a few Muslim women with their husbands and families. How no one asked me what I wanted, only what my partner wanted because he’s a man. How I wanted to avoid eye contact with the men on the street because it didn’t feel safe.

It felt confusing not to see what you’re used to and realize that in this city there are different social norms that steer the society.

After a one-hour hop-on hop-off bus tour we hopped off in the city center and went for dinner at the busy food street next to our hotel. There, I was again faced with things I had not been expecting.

Noise, Always Noise

I was overwhelmed with what I saw, what I heard and what I felt.

I saw people who had lost some of their limbs; a man with severe burn marks on his face; another with a physically distorted body – all sitting on the ground begging for money from the tourists walking by.

For me, it was so hard accept that I couldn’t do anything to help them.

And if the local people weren’t there begging, they were doing everything in their power to try to sell me food or other products (or mostly my partner because he’s a man and the culture in the country is very dominated by men). They were ringing bells, yelling, honking, shoving menus in our faces, some of them walking after us persuading us to eat at their restaurant. It was so primitive – to use noise to attract attention, because if they get your attention it’ll be easier to sell you things.

I wasn’t enjoying the city at all – how could I? Kuala Lumpur was filled with noise, always noise wherever we went, whether it was noise made by people or the honking cars. Or there was always people trying to get your attention – there wasn’t room or silence to sit down and think.

I just wanted to get away from everything, I just wanted to find a quiet place.

For a while I thought I wasn’t fit to travel, that I couldn’t do it – I wasn’t even having fun.

But after a couple of day of negative reactions to everything around me, I realized what was happening. I was experiencing a culture shock, something I had heard about years before.

It explained why I had so much trouble adjusting to the new country.

Peace Through Understanding

When I realized this, it became a bit easier to understand the awful feelings and thoughts inside my head. This was a natural reaction when exposed to something completely new – and the most important thing was to know that even this feeling of disorientation will pass. By understanding it became easier to sleep in the room (after getting rid of the bugs); we started going somewhere less crowded where there weren’t bell-ringing or yelling locals trying to get my attention, and I got used to seeing more men than women on the streets.

Still, I felt very happy happy when we traveled North to Georgetown in Penang three nights later. This is a small city with less sound, less tourists and better accommodation. This place is also chance to breath out, to realize what has been happening inside my head and give Malaysia a new chance.

Experiencing a culture shock was awful and for a moment it felt like traveling wasn’t anything for me. But after realizing what was happening, what I was experiencing, I thought that at the same time, the rollercoaster of feelings and thoughts about the city and its culture was a valuable lesson in the process of learning to know myself.

Now I know one of the possible downsides of travel and how I react to these things. I also know that I can deal with rooms without windows, I’m okay with taking a shower above the toilet, and I know to walk away from areas that are too touristic for my own good.

And the most important thing – despite the heavy shock I’m still on the road, still backpacking. I’m ready for the next adventure, the next town and the new people we’ll meet on the road.

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.