Southeast Asia has long been a preferred tourist destination due to its diverse and culturally rich settings, incredible sights, unique local cuisines, and affordability, as depicted by travel websites.
For governments in the region, tourism is a major contributor to economic growth; the Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates that it contributes “at least 15% to 25% of each country’s GDP (gross domestic product)” and employs 40 million employees. The industry experienced major downturns at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, with arrivals plunging precipitously, but with the easing of restrictions and the opening of borders, visitors have begun flocking back to the region.
The ADB sees the revival of Southeast Asia’s tourism industry as “an opportunity to fix structural issues that have plagued tourism over the years and rebuild it greener … ” given that “across the region, there are numerous examples of rapid tourism growth harming the environment.” In the Philippines, the famous Boracay suffered from “overtourism” and lax sanitation measures, causing sewer and waste management to deteriorate. This led to the closure of the island to tourists for six months in 2018 to undergo environmental rehabilitation and renewal.
There is, of course, the practice of “sex tourism” for which Southeast Asia has become notorious. The International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers defines sex tourism as “travel specifically arranged for or planned by travelers to facilitate the procurement of sex.” A recent survey of the top 10 sex tourism destinations in the world includes Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia. The United Nations’ International Labor Organization notes that “in Indonesia alone, the sex work industry accounts for between 0.8 and 2.4 percent of the country’s GDP estimated at US$1.2 billion.”
The buzzword being promoted by both the ADB and the UN World Tourism Organization is “sustainable travel”—i.e., “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social, and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment, and host communities.” It is also to make sure that “tourist dollars that come in benefit the community and the local economy.”
Sustainable tourism is one of the targets under the UN Sustainable Development Goal No. 8—i.e., to “promote sustained and inclusive economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.”
The question, however, is whether Southeast Asian governments will buy into the UN and ADB proposals “to counter excessive tourism.” Nikkei Asia reported in 2022 that the measures mulled, such as “charging higher admission fees, limiting visitor numbers, and temporary closures of vulnerable areas like national parks and marine sanctuaries,” have been met with a “barrage of opposition from the tourist industry and local government officials.”
‘Myanmar’s Silicon Valley’
A portent of things to come may already be gleaned from a Nikkei Asia special report that in Myanmar’s Karen (Kayin) state along the Moei River that divides Thailand from Myanmar, a fantastic $15-billion “city of the future” called Shwe Kokko Yatai New City is being built.
The project in Myanmar’s insurgency-torn state was promoted as part of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative.” It was, however, disavowed by the Chinese embassy and questioned by the former government of Aung San Suu Kyi. After the military coup on Feb 1, 2021, that overthrew Suu Kyi, the project proceeded as planned.
Shwe Kokko is being billed as “Myanmar’s Silicon Valley” but the real picture is menacing and sinister, as the Nikkei Asia report uncovered. Lying just north of Thailand’s Mae Sot province, the high-tech site is actually “a known criminal hub used for online gambling, scamming and human trafficking,” and the structures look more like “penal colonies” with 4-meter concrete walls topped with coiled razor wire … resembling concentration camps.”
Its Chinese financier-operators with underworld reputations have fled Macao’s now highly regulated gambling and illicit businesses. As if on cue, “more crime zones [are] springing up southward along the shallow, winding Moei River, which at the driest times of year can be crossed on foot.”
The shift to Southeast Asian locations by gambling lords and sex traffickers was precipitated by “Covid-19 lockdowns and official clampdowns on casino junkets” in Macao, which reduced gambling revenues in 2021 to the lowest level ever. Macao casino financiers have actually been moving out since 2016 to less regulated territories such as Sihanoukville and Poipet in Cambodia, and later in Thailand’s borders with Laos and Myanmar.
This exodus has created countless unregulated casinos beyond any rule of law. Masquerading as “special economic zones,” the new criminal enclaves now occupy a stretch of 40 kilometers along the Moei River. Furthermore, online gambling technology and infrastructure have also been used for scamming, causing a regional “scamdemic,” to use Nikkei Asia’s term.
The “development” frenzy has gotten out of control, prompting the US Institute of Peace to dub in a commentary “15 distinct criminal zones in the area” as “a growing threat to global security.”
Meanwhile, the ADB has launched a Southeast Asia Tourism Hub to “help member countries develop and structure projects that are bankable for the private sector and help governments develop and design suitable projects.” One major goal is to raise the capital via private investments to finance sustainable tourism projects in the region following the public-private partnership (PPP) model.
There is, however, an element of hypocrisy in the ADB’s promotion of “green tourism” given that the bank has been providing billions of dollars in support of mega projects such as dams and mining concerns that have been anything but protective of the environment.
In any case, Southeast Asian governments may be slow to respond to or could be resistant to the ADB’s initiatives. PPPs have had a spotty record in the region and elsewhere, aside from having a long gestation period of implementation. That being the case, quick-return tourism-related projects like the Shwe Kokko zones along the Moei River may prove to be more attractive to private capital anxious to recoup its heavy losses during the pandemic.
This article is excerpted with revisions and additions from the author’s introduction “What holds for a post-pandemic Southeast Asia?” to a forthcoming publication, Towards a Peoples’ Alternative Regionalism in Southeast Asia: Volume II, published by the UP Center for Integrative and Development Studies, Program on Alternative Development (UP CIDS AltDev). —Ed.