Travelfish #419: Blood on their hands

Help a billionaire today not tomorrow. Well, not really.

Hi all,

Yes I know, late again—apols! This week I’ve a piece about some segments of the travel industry. Yes I know, we’re all hurting and/or going broke (raises hand lol) and others (including me) dearly want to travel again, but I’m firmly in the “locals safe first camp”. Travel needs to wait.

I’ve been burning the midnight oil on Couchfish and here are three from the free to read series you might like.

Meet two backpackers in training. Ko Kradan, Thailand. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

First I wrote about backpackers and why I think tourism boards are making a mistake ignoring them. Then I did a long interview with an old friend based in Yangon, about what it is like living through a coup. Also on the deteriorating situation there, this Twitter list I put together can be quite useful to keep abreast of news. For something lighter, try the series on travels through Thailand’s southwest islands with my kids. The most recent one, on Ko Libong, is here.

Don’t forget, paid Couchfish subscribers are up to Day 205 on the itinerary through the region—you can see the blow by blow here. Subscriptions start at US$7 per month.

Over on Thai Island Times, David had an epic (does he ever do anything but epic?!) wrap on Thailand’s Ko Jum. Oh what a great island, but why does it have two names? David explains. Then there is his late February beach and island wrap, as ever, loaded with information.

If you haven’t quite read enough Covid news this week, Mike’s wrap on what is happening in Vietnam vaccination wise, is worth a read.

Alright, now onto the rest. The photos, as always, are from last week on Couchfish.

Good travels!


Blood on the hands

Ever since the outbreak of Covid in Wuhan, about 8,000 years ago, there has been talk about striking a balance between the economy and public health.

I live in a Southeast Asian country which tried (I think, it is difficult to know for sure what they were trying to do) to tilt towards the economy. They had some persuasive arguments, though mostly as a result of prior failings. The end result a little over a year in: A cumulative Covid caseload of over 1,3000,000 people and over 35,000 dead. These are the official numbers—educated pundits consider the real numbers to be higher. The economy, including travel, still tanked.

How do you spell sustainability again? Sapa, Vietnam. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Elsewhere in the region, Vietnam and Thailand tilted their approach towards public health. The caseloads and deaths in these countries make for a stark contrast. Vietnam: Around 2,500 cases and 35 deaths. Thailand: 26,000 cases and 84 deaths.

Nobody ever said this was going to be easy.

Most vocal for, in the least easing restrictions, were segments of the travel industry. An industry of which Travelfish is a part.

Travel talking heads whined about borders closing, quarantine and their lost revenue. News stories, quoting the same talking heads, were all too regular. More often than not, said stories would feature no quotes from a health professional. They were, I dunno, like advertorials. Which makes sense, as payola press is part and parcel with how much of the travel industry works.

Burma is sadly on the coup circle train. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Within Southeast Asia, Thailand was the epicentre for much of this. The country’s economy is over–exposed to tourism, particularly in recent years ex–China. It is undeniable Covid has been a catastrophe for those involved in the travel industry. While I’d rather chew glass than say anything nice about the clowns that run the joint, Thailand has done a good job.

Putting public health first has not satisfied some of Thailand’s travel industry though. They want the country open.

In late 2020, viable vaccines began to appear, and calls for a reopening went up a note. Don’t bother with pesky details like if a vaccine will stop people from passing it on. Or if vaccinations will protect people against new versions of the virus. Or even how long a vaccination will last.

Got the jab? Of course you can get on a plane. You don’t need quarantine—we want your money!

Meditate on it. Bottle top Buddha mural, Si Saket, Thailand. Photo: David Luekens.

As usual, little conversation has centred on the health of local people. There’s been some table talk of vaccinating tourism workers. Both Phuket and Bali have thrown this idea around.

Define a frontend tourism worker. Front desk staff? Sure. Taxi drivers? I guess. A barman at a popular beach–bar .... ahh maybe. Their families? What about Ibu Cantik at the local warung down the road? Not so much.

Where do you draw the line? Who bears the risk? Most likely Ibu Cantik and her family and friends. All of whom may struggle for the funds for decent medical care should they fall ill with Covid.

Perhaps they’re considering bringing high–end tourists into hermetically sealed resorts. I guess you could vaccinate all the local staff who may have contact with vaccine pass–holders. If that’s the case, you’re talking about governments propping up privately owned businesses. Businesses that are often foreigner focused and foreigner managed or owned.

Just say no to queue jumping. Gunung Tambora, Indonesia. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Please explain to me why these should go to the front of the queue? Ahead of, I dunno, school teachers? Or public–facing staff catering to local people at the local bank or government office?

Which brings me to what brought on this whole rant.

Today I saw a travel industry petition. They’re petitioning Thailand to reopen to vaccinated travellers, sans quarantine. On July 1—yes July 1 this year, not next year, or the year after. This year. In under 100 days. When I first saw the site I thought it was satire—I was wrong.

At the time I wrote this, of the seventeen signatories 16 are foreigners. All but one are men. Many of the companies, while Thai in name, are foreign run and managed. As always there’s also Thailand’s favourite billionaire (in dollars, not baht) foreign hotelier. I best remember him for shafting Pizza Hut.

When people talk about “hotel/resort industry” hurting, they may not realise it’s a segmented trade. At the lower end of things, you’ve room cleaners, drivers and other day work staff. These people have mostly lost their jobs as hotels have closed across the region. Ironically these are the people you’ll most likely to have actually met during a stay. They’re almost always, local. Termination benefits are often limited if at all. That’s the gig economy for you.

Start by reading about malaria. This could be far worse. Yangon, Burma. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

At the other end of the spectrum you have dudes with a near half size Olympic pool in a backyard the size of a football field. He’s got 20 staff and private schooling for the kids. They’re almost always not local.

Why are they highlighting the support of (mostly) wealthy foreigners? Tell me the stories of local tourism workers—hell, they could only manage one Thai onto the entire list! Like I said, I thought it was satire.

There’s two quotes I’d like to highlight from the site.

“The majority of citizens in many source markets will have been vaccinated by then.”

As of late February, China, by far Thailand’s largest inbound market, had administered around 40m shots. Malaysia, Thailand’s second largest inbound market (in 2019) has barely started. India, #3, as of late February, had vaccinated 10 million people. Between these four, they accounted for around 40% of Thailand’s inbound tourism market in 2019.

Maybe they’re talking about other, whiter, source markets. The US perhaps? Bloomberg estimated it will take another seven months (so to September) to vaccinate 75% of the population. Australia similarly has suggested all adults who wish to be vaccinated will be done by October. Worth noting that Australia has also said they don’t see quarantine going away until the end of 2022.

Watch out for sharks. Ko Ngai, Thailand. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

I could go on, but I’m not sure which sizeable source markets, majority vaccinated by July 1, they’re talking about.

“It will take Thailand at least a year, and maybe a lot longer, to return to the large numbers of international visitors that it had before the Covid-19 crisis.”

Nobody with a sustainability or environmental brain wants to revisit Thailand’s 2019 numbers. Nobody. Well, except these guys. Go ask a sustainability expert or an environmentalist. Ask them if they think bouncing back to almost 40m tourists a year is a good idea for Thailand’s environment and local communities.

I get it. Everyone wants to travel—including me. I never thought I’d say I miss KLIA2, but I do.

That said, public health for the local population must be the number one priority. Not only tourism workers in fancy pants extractive resorts—Ibu Cantik and her family too. The risks are too high in the meantime. Once local populations are vaccinated, then let’s talk about inbound tourism. Not before.

Arguing the opposite, for a re–opening to pad already fat wallets at the expense of public health, just leaves more blood on the industry’s hands.

Good travels


Thirteen things worth reading

Tourism desperately wants a return to the ‘old normal’ but that would be a disaster

“Travel should be closer to home, slower, and with a positive contribution at its core. In this model, all erosion of natural, cultural and social capital ceases.”

Shit trips

Oh go on, give it a listen—we’ve all had one.

The power of script

“Minority group languages in Myanmar, as well as across the region, are even more impacted by these script problems, affecting millions of people across Southeast Asia.”

How ‘tiger farms’ have turned a wild animal into a species worth more dead than alive

“In one stall, tiger cubs wrapped in pigskin jackets could be seen suckling a sow, while a few metres away, a tigress acted as a wet nurse for piglets clad in tiny tiger skins.”

In decline, what’s the future for Vietnam’s historic North-South railway?

“The North-South Railway is symbolic of this lack of follow-through. The slowly decaying colonial-era relic has been pushed to the brink by the added pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic. The industry, already in decline, has taken a nosedive. ”

Chinese dams, pollution send Vietnamese in Mekong Delta in search of greener pastures

“The report said that the lack of skilled labour compounded by a slow transition toward more productive industries could lead to the delta’s economy being left behind by the rest of Vietnam.”

Only 1 of 52 pilot whales survives mass stranding in Indonesia

“Observers cited water pollution, extreme weather and shipping activity as among the possible causes of the stranding — though they cautioned they could only speculate.”

Ten rescued orangutans returned to the wild in Indonesia

“There are only estimated to be around 100,000 Bornean orangutans left in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund, more than half the population being depleted over the past 60 years.”

Champasak – The Tragic Kingdom of Southern Laos

“These changes caused massive disruption to the local societies. Trade routes that had traditionally passed west to east were now blocked. The French directed all communications along the Mekong River introducing steam boats and even railways to try and make the Mekong commercially viable. The social disruptions started by the Siamese and compounded by the French caused several popular rebellions up until the 1930’s.”

Laos’ Pointless Election

Nor is there space for dissent in the wider society. Government surveillance is prominent, and security groups and party-linked organizations routinely look for government criticism, including online. ”

Into Indonesia volcanoes?

You’ll be wanting this free wall map!

Backpacker Tourism Faces a Changing Landscape Post-Pandemic

“Backpackers these days have money, and something that many other types of travelers don’t have: time. Unlike your average tourist, backpackers have the time to put up with a two-week quarantine in order to enter a country and stay there for three months.”

Who Was I Before This Pandemic – And Who Am I Now?

“It’s been a year that, at least for the privileged, vacillated between extreme suffering, intense grief, and mind-numbing boredom. It’s been both the saddest year of my life and also one of the most revealing. This juxtaposition has been strange, but I appreciate the hell out of things I used to take for granted, things like going to the museum. I hope that my appreciation for the small and mundane never goes away.”

Something to read

Southeast Asia in Ruins

“Sarah Tiffin’s Southeast Asia in Ruins sets out to demonstrate that these images are in fact gross misrepresentations of reality. Moreover, it aims to peel away the surface level of European images and depictions of the region’s dilapidated religious monuments to reveal their deeper significance, specifically in relation to the “twin aspirations of progress and power.”

Thank you

Thanks again for supporting Travelfish through reading and sharing both this newsletter and the site.

Good travels