Tsunami Blame Game


Rather than simply revel in Thailand's newly pristine beaches, the New Republic's Joshua Kurlantzick flat out blames a paucity of government regulation for the scope of devastation in Phi Phi and Phuket here in Sunday's WP. Of course, it's pretty clear that Kurlantzick just thinks Phi Phi Don is ugly:

As the longtail boat approached the main dock, we saw that developers had built dozens of squat guesthouses and small hotels all along the main beaches with little planning. The places were jammed so close to each other—and to the beach—that it was often unclear where one tiny resort ended and the next began. Phi Phi Don's main street was similarly crowded; shops selling fiery local whiskey, phat thai, dreadlocks and other local necessities were built almost on top of each other. Behind the shops were tiny dwellings housing local workers. At night, Phi Phi Don's crowded spaces made the island so noisy it was often hard to sleep. When I returned to Bangkok, only marginally refreshed, I learned more about Thailand's tourism industry, and realized Phi Phi Don was too typical.

Thailand's coastal tourism industry is actually the envy of Southeast Asia, a region with no shortage of gorgeous beaches. That's mostly because it's cheap—cheap to fly, cheap to stay, cheap to eat. Phuket and Phi Phi Don attract college and gap-year students in droves by providing the very whiskey, dreadlocks and Phat Thai that so displeased Kurlantzick. Phi Phi isn't a tourist's hell; as Lonely Planet puts it, the island is a "backpacker's paradise." Had Thais tried to "clean up" the Phi Phi islands, they would have thrust them into competition with dozens of the region's upscale beaches, probably unsuccessfully.

Should Thailand's bureaucrats have predicted disaster and swept the beach clean? The industry probably should have done more to protect mangroves and coral reefs, but clearing up the clutter would have driven up prices with no obvious gain. In Sri Lanka or Banda Aceh, it wouldn't have much mattered whether tourists were housed in bamboo huts or modern hotels, whether they were 10 feet from the shore or a mile. It's hard to legislate against a 30-foot wall of water. Phuket and Phi Phi suffered huge casualties simply because they were teeming with people, and they were teeming with people because they were appealing to tourists.