Many backpackers are very rude about places in Asia which have long been known as tourist hotspots. Koh Phangan, Chiang Mai, Siem Reap, Goa, Luang Prabang. (I have personally lived in two of those places and am currently spending a month in Goa).
“Not a local experience.”
“You’re just not seeing the real Thailand / Cambodia / India / Laos”
Well, I’ve got news for you. Those touristy places are very real too! They’re just as real as the quaint villages, and just as real as the rapidly modernising Asian cities, and in our opinion they are worth exploring, just as much as those ‘off the beaten track’ places. (And by God, you should visit those too!)
You see, very often, touristy places are touristy for a reason.
They have incredible beaches, amazing countryside, they are in close proximity to a natural or historical manmade wonder.
And, very often, touristy places have excellent, great value for money accommodation, an amazing variety of food (that isn’t going to give you food poisoning) and plenty of opportunity to get away from those dreaded tourists.
Here are some reasons why we reckon you shouldn’t cross those tourist hotspots off your travel list…
Disclaimer: Some touristy places are, without doubt, man-made hell-holes that have been commercialised beyond salvation. We’re merely suggesting that you shouldn’t write them ALL off – until you’ve experienced them yourself. Then, and only then, can you slag them off until the cows come home!
1. Tourist hotspots can be cleaner with less pollution
As I mentioned above, I am currently spending a month in a beach hut on Agonda Beach in southern Goa. Before arriving in India, my boyfriend and I had already decided that we wouldn’t be going to Goa. It would be full of tourists of the worst kind; intoxicated party ‘goas’ (did I just do that? Sorry!). After spending two weeks travelling in Kerala, personally I was finding India a little difficult. Mainly I was struggling with the dirty streets and the fact that many beauty spots were tainted by so much litter and rivers and lagoons were polluted to a level that saddened me.
Upon strong recommendations from fellow travellers that we met, we decided to try out Goa. Arriving in southern Goa was like visiting a different world. The roads are quieter with less air (and sound) pollution, there is not a scrap of litter on the beach and the countryside is so much more looked after. Whether or not you can equate this to the fact that Goa’s main industry is tourism, is unproven. Yet, I believe that locals in Goa are proud to show off their beautiful land to tourists and perhaps keep it cleaner as a result. (I do bear in mind that Goa is also the richest state in India).
2. Tourism can lead to greater protection of the the environment
I once had the pleasure to interview Joe Cummings, the original writer of the Lonely Planet Thailand guide and spoke to him about the impact of tourism on certain parts of South East Asia. After discussing the tourist hell of Vang Vieng (which is now a burgeoning eco tourist hub I might add!), he opened my eyes to the fact that in some places, tourism could be a good thing. For example, in diving hotspots across Thailand, the more that tourists want to come to learn to dive, the more coral reefs are protected.
In Koh Tao, Thailand, many of the dive schools that are run by foreigners are helping to protect the underwater world for future generations. In Sri Lanka, the main attraction for tourists is undoubtedly the incredible wildlife, which local people seem to give great respect to. Large national parks ensure that the natural habitats of creatures are protected and tourist money goes towards maintaining them.
Ancient monuments will be preserved if local authorities realise the money that can be made from tourism. Of course, it is up to local governments and responsible tourists themselves to make sure that they pay as much respect to the environment as is needed in order to lessen their footprint.
3. You can indulge in some comfort food
After a few months on the road without your creature comforts, are you craving a good coffee or a delicious wood fired pizza? As many expats from all over the world make their home in tourist hotspots of Asia, it’s easy to get an authentic Italian cappuccino, an Israeli shakshuka or (heaven forbid) an English breakfast to satisfy your cravings.
It’s good and, it’s about a third of the price that you’d buy it for at home! There’s often great local food too, and (in India for example in touristy places where locals are more used to catering to foreign visitors), the hygiene can be better – so you’re not afraid of having the prawns.
4. There’s an interesting ethnic mix of migrant workers and locals
As you chat to the workers in the bars and restaurants you may realise that they are not from ‘around here’. Due to the influx of migrant workers into many destinations, a micro-society is created. In Southern Thailand, you’re likely to make friends with bar staff who are originally from Burma. In India, you may find that the staff are from northern India, Bhutan or Nepal. All over the world, people travel to tourist hotspots where the wages are higher and the lifestyle is (hopefully) better.
Owners of restaurants and resorts employ workers from different countries because it is cheaper than employing people from the local area. (Migrant workers are certainly treated better in some places than others. Look at the recent controversial case of the murder of two backpackers in Koh Tao, where it is rumoured that two local Burmese workers were scapegoated.) All in all, you can learn an awful lot about local economies and regional politics by chatting with the migrant workers.
5. It still isn’t hard to get off the beaten track!
In Sri Lanka last month, one of our favourite places on the east coast was the ‘surfer’s paradise’ of Arugam Bay. Again, before travelling here, we had been worried that we would loathe it. Travelling from the ‘up country’ (the mountainous centre) to the east coast, it seemed that every tuk tuk and taxi driver knew where we were going and wanted to help us get there. We feared a huge tourist trap.
Upon arriving in Arugam Bay (in low season I add), we were pleasantly surprised. We were faced with an excellent variety of cheap, good quality accommodation and amazing food; fresh seafood barbecues / Indian curries / Thai cuisine. The best thing about Arugam Bay however, was how easy it was to get off the beaten track, away from the other tourists and into areas where we it was just us and the creatures! We spotted wild elephants one day crossing a lagoon (15 minutes away from the main ‘strip’ of Arugam Bay) and saw wild crocodiles in a stream a short motorbike drive from our beach bungalow.
Of course, every place is different, but what I’m trying to say, is that it’s really easy to walk a few streets away from the tacky bars and pubs and have an ‘authentic’ local experience. This is even possible in the most touristy street in the world, Khao San Road – we promise! Walk a few streets back from MacDonald’s and you’ll find only locals eating at a street food stall where you can get papaya salad for 30 baht!
6. Community of international expats
Many tourist hotspots attract a variety of expats from all over the world. Apart from the food benefits (mentioned above), the expat community can be a really interesting gang to hang out with (as I write about in my book!). Guessing what jobs everyone does in order to maintain their lifestyle in paradise is a fun game.
In India you’ll meet European hippies who got on the hippie bus 60 years ago and never returned to their home countries. They remember a time when the beach was lined only with coconut palms, not beach bungalows and resorts as it is today. Some even remember a time before the Irish bar was built! The old ones will tell you what it was like when they discovered it (and why they’ve never left), and the young ones will tell you why they never plan to leave. You can get a very interesting (if at times cynical) perspective from chatting to the expat community in tourist hotspots. You never know, maybe you’ll become one yourself!
When places are popular, they often have a cheap and convenient way of getting there. Local budget airlines will put on cheap flights to get there and there’ll be a direct bus / train / boat. Everything is made easy for the money-spending tourist.
If you’re travelling for a while and need a rest and a time to gather your thoughts, tourist hotspots are good places to get your laundry done / photocopy some documents / buy some souvenirs to send home / post a parcel to your parent’s house and take advantage of all of the above points. Finally, often (but not always), tourist hotspots often offer a wide variety of accommodation options to suit every budget. From the luxury resorts to the rustic beach hut, every type of traveller is catered for. Particularly in low season, you can get some great deals on hotels and hostels.
About the writer: This article was written by Nikki Scott, founder of South East Asia Backpacker Magazine. If you want to find out more how she went from backpacker to entrepreneur / travel writer, read her book here!