7 Places in Southeast Asia Ruined by Overtourism

We recently asked our Facebook Community; ‘Which places in Southeast Asia, if any, do you consider ruined by tourism?’.

A few countries were mentioned more than once; including locations in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines. These destinations have become very popular with travellers, leading to problems that the local community and environment are rarely equipped to manage.

Despite overtourism at these destinations, it is essential to note that this selection of people’s opinions about ruined places in Southeast Asia may not reflect the views of all travellers. The goal of this discussion is to increase people’s awareness of overtourism and consider how we can all mitigate our impact on the places we visit.

Disclaimer: We at South East Asia Backpacker are aware that overtourism is a growing concern within the travel industry. Although the following places made it onto our list of ‘ruined’ places, there are still many reasons to visit them (a country is more than its tourist hubs)! We hope to encourage you to see all that Southeast Asia has to offer visitors (and that is a lot). 

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What Is Overtourism? 

Tourism can bring a much-needed boost to local economies. However, too much tourism can be detrimental as it strains local infrastructure. This can lead to sometimes unmanageable issues within the community which can also negatively impact the environment. 

Defining overtourism is simple, but applying it to a specific place can be controversial. What one person may see as a benefit, another may see as a drawback. In recent years, social media and in particular, Instagram and Facebook, have driven the growth of specific tourism destinations more than anything else. 

Angkor Wat Temples at Sunrise.
Angkor Wat in Siem Reap is commonly crowded with groups of tourists!

So, has social media led to overtourism in certain places? In short, yes! 

Due to the power of some social media influencers, a photo tagged in a specific place can lead to a surge in tourism. While this can offer a significant boost to the local economy, an influx of visitors also has its downsides. 

The latest official data released shows that Instagram has over 1 billion active monthly users worldwide. Additionally, data shows that, on average, 1 in 8 people with internet access on a mobile device use the Instagram app at least once every 24 hours!

“Social media, specifically Instagram, has ruined so many places worldwide.” – Vee.

So is this a good or a bad thing? It’s hard to say. When social media influencers hype specific destinations, it can lead to an influx of tourists that the local community are not prepared to manage. 

The local people will likely be more than happy to welcome an abundance of visitors. However, remember that the curated Instagram photos are never as candid as social media makes them seem. 

While the issue of overtourism is complex, it is easy to see that once a destination is labelled ‘the best’, everyone wants to go, and that is not always a good thing. 

7 Places in Southeast Asia Ruined by Overtourism

1. Halong Bay, Vietnam 

Halong Bay Adventure! (North Vietnam)
Halong Bay is a beautiful destination just be sure to research your tour company before you go!

You might be surprised to see Vietnam on this list as it is one of the most scenic and off the beaten track countries in Southeast Asia. However, its popularity in recent years has seen specific locations overcome by a mass influx of tourism.

The emerald green waters of Halong Bay draw tourists every year from around the world who want to experience a unique boat tour on the water. Surrounded by impressive limestone cliffs, sailing off into the sunset at this UNESCO World Heritage site is a must-do in Vietnam. 

Unfortunately, overtourism combined with a lack of regulation has seen some serious problems emerge at Halong Bay. As a result, there are two critical concerns regarding the future of tourism there: the environment and safety regulations. 

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of tour operators and boats in the bay, leading to an increase in accidents and, unfortunately, even fatalities. In 2009, a major accident occurred on the bay when a boat carrying 32 people overturned in bad weather, ending in multiple deaths. 

Later, in 2011, a boat sank, killing 12 tourists. Given the enormous volume of visitors and tour operators cruising the bay each year, the risk is considered low but there is always room for debate. Our advice is to choose your Halong Bay tour company wisely and look for positive traveller reviews. 

It is not uncommon to see rubbish floating on the water’s surface when you cruise around the islands in much of Southeast Asia. But it’s not just plastic pollution that Halong Bay needs to worry about – it’s the number of boats in the water. 

“The bay (Halong Bay) itself has hundreds of boats, even a cruise ship at the edge of the bay.” – Daryl.

Boats are reported to dispose of the waste on board directly into the bay, leading to all sorts of environmental issues. Therefore, it is essential to look for eco-friendly tour operators that follow sustainable tourism practices. 

It is always important to remember that, as tourists, our plastic footprint also makes a difference. Reduce your single-use plastic waste by backpacking with reusable items and plastic-free travel essentials. Say no to plastic bags, bottles, and straws! 

2. Hoi An, Vietnam

Bia Hoi junction
Hoi An is a great place to enjoy the street food with fellow travellers! Photo credit: Diego Narvaez.

Tourism in Vietnam reached an all-time high in January 2020, right before the pandemic. An estimated 18 million visitors arrived in the country at its peak. In hand with this, Hoi An has struggled to cope with an increase in tourists. 

“Hoi An, Vietnam [has been ruined], they turned a beautiful old town into a touristy s**thouse!” – Mustapha.

Hoi An is known for being very Instagram-worthy and a hotspot for travellers who want photos, vlog content, and to capture romantic moments. Located on the Thu Bon River, the city draws in social media influencers and travellers who don’t want to miss the stunning scenery and World Heritage status. 

boats on the river at sunset
Hoi An, Vietnam is picture-perfect at sunset. Photo credit: Xuan Nguyen.

Due to the commercialisation of much of this city, travellers can feel a little disappointed by large crowds, expensive tourist sites, overpriced meals and local sellers attempting to get their attention. 

Rickshaws (2 or 3 wheeled passenger carts) are one of the most famous attractions on offer to visitors. Due to the influx of motorbikes and cars as the main form of transport in Vietnam, rickshaw drivers are primarily supported by the tourism industry. This leads to a considerable amount of congestion and tourists getting heckled by drivers. 

If you prefer to be left alone, you might want to venture further off the beaten track than Hoi An. However, if you can cope with the chaos, Hoi An is still worth stopping by. How much you’re influenced by the above, will likely depend on how long you choose to stay. 

3. Sihanoukville, Cambodia

Koh Rong Samloem, Cambodia
Koh Rong Samloem feels a world away from the city of Sihanoukville.

In 2021, Cambodia was set to see over 6.6 million visitors. Travellers typically go to Cambodia to visit the famous site of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap and explore the beauty of the Southern Islands, including Koh Rong, Koh Rong Samloem, and Koh Ta Kiev.

While both places are definitely worth a visit, there is one place that is a hot topic of debate; Sihanoukville. Travellers have little choice but to pass through this coastal city on their way to the nearby islands as it’s the location of the ferry port. However, the city has had a poor reputation for years due to both overtourism and rapid urban development.

What was once a sleepy beach town is now unrecognisable to backpackers who once visited Sihanoukville way back when. Nowadays, travellers often pass through and don’t stay long on their way to the beautiful southern islands. Pollution and plastic rubbish is a major concern.

Litter-strewn Otres Beach, Sihanoukville.
Rubbish washed up on the shore of Otres Beach, Sihanoukville.

“Without a doubt, Sihanoukville [is ruined by tourism].” Owen.

Unfortunately, Sihanoukville is often touted as one of the worst destinations in Southeast Asia, ruined by Chinese investment and mass tourism. This is primarily due to the rapid development of more than 70 casinos and the influx of social problems that come with it, such as gambling, drinking, and high crime. 

Now unrecognisable, even well-established tourism companies have withdrawn from Sihanoukville and are encouraging tourists to skip it altogether. 

The good news is that Cambodia is incredibly diverse, and many destinations are still as off the beaten track as they have ever been. 

If you aren’t in the mood for busloads of tour groups, skip over places like Sihanoukville, especially in the peak season, and travel out to places such as Kep, Battambang and Kampot

4. Koh Samui, Thailand

Maya Bay has reopened with new regulations to protect the natural environment.

By far one of the most incredible backpacking destinations in Southeast Asia, Thailand has made headlines for welcoming large crowds of tourists every year. 

Well aware of the perils of overtourism, The Thai Government has taken a number of steps to preserve their precious landscapes. They even decided to close Maya Bay to provide the island with a chance to recover from mass visitor numbers and unmanageable pollution. 

The same can’t be said for everywhere though. Koh Samui is the third largest island and one of the most iconic backpacker destinations in the Gulf of Thailand. 

It has seen its fair share of problems, from large numbers of tourists crowding the beaches, ongoing pollution, waste management issues and fatal accidents involving tourists. 

“I’ll never return to Phuket or Koh Samui!” – Chris.

So should you visit? It is important to note that the island of Koh Samui is still a popular destination for travellers, and it has much to offer those who are looking to stay for a while. 

You can find various activities such as yoga and health retreats, Muay Thai boxing camps, cooking classes, and scuba diving courses, to name a few! 

5. Phuket, Thailand

Phuket, Bangla Road.
Tourists enjoy the party scene on offer in Patong Beach, Phuket, Thailand.

Phuket province is located in Southern Thailand in the beautiful Andaman Sea. Famous for its nightlife, Phuket is the largest island and the stopover for many travellers seeking out the nearby beaches. 

Unfortunately, the province doesn’t have the best reputation. This is primarily because it is no longer a secret paradise and has morphed into a rapidly developing tourist hub. 

Tour buses, polluted beaches, crowded bars, and the colourful nightlife of Patong, full of prostitution, high crime and drugs, are not every traveller’s idea of a nice holiday. In addition, Phuket is widely known for being a tourist trap where everything is overpriced. This ranges from souvenirs to must-see attractions, food and transportation. 

It will be interesting to see what the future of tourism looks like in Phuket. 

6. Kuta, Indonesia

Kuta Bali Beach
The famous stretch of sand in Kuta, Bali on one of its better days!

Made up of over 17,000 islands, Indonesia has so much to offer travellers. Bali, the island of the gods, is just one example of this and is one of the most visited destinations in Asia. 

The tourism industry has helped to grow Bali’s economy substantially by providing jobs and improving the standard of living. However, Bali has suffered the negative impact of overtourism too. If there is one spot that makes this obvious, it’s Kuta Beach.  

Polluted, overpriced, and underwhelming, Kuta Beach is no longer the sleepy coastal area it once was. Instead, Kuta offers visitors fancy hotels, modern shopping malls, western restaurants and clubs, all close to the airport. It’s an excellent place for backpackers to party but go for a surf, and it won’t be long until you are swimming in a pile of rubbish. 

The plastic pollution in the region has become so out of control it has to be seen to be believed. While Bali has a huge problem with waste management, much of the rubbish on the beach is tidal rubbish. According to Aljazeera, this occurs when the monsoon weather carries the pollution from Java to Bali. 

There is nothing original left;  the sea is dirty and full of plastic.” Peter referring to Bali.

Kuta Beach is a hub for tourists both domestic and international, so if you’d prefer to have the beach to yourself, you’ll need to go further out and explore other areas of the island. 

Deciding to add Kuta Beach to your bucket list is your choice, but there are far more beautiful beaches and many nicer areas in Bali to spend your time, including Uluwatu, the Gili Islands and Nusa Penida

7. Boracay, The Philippines

Anna Dawson doing a Beach Clean Up for Plastic Free Philippines
Anna Dawson cleans up Manila Bay, the Philippines.

Did you know that two destinations in the Philippines made it into our 13 places to avoid in Southeast Asia article? It is not uncommon to hear travellers talk about the Philippines and debate over things like safety, food, pollution and transport, especially in the densely crowded city of Manila

Perhaps no other place has taught us more lessons on the consequences of overtourism than Boracay Island. After being named as one of Asia’s best tropical destinations by numerous sources, including TripAdvisor, the 10-kilometre square island was fast overwhelmed by crowds. 

A lack of appropriate infrastructure, poor waste management plan, no cap on travel numbers, and rapid tourism growth saw this tiny island overcome with issues that they could not keep up with. 

Perhaps one of the biggest issues on the island was the lack of access to proper sewage waste disposal. According to reports, over 85% of business owners and residential properties were without legally authorized sewage facilities. And, the waste has to go somewhere, right? Unfortunately, much of it was being illegally dumped in the ocean, polluting the natural environment and risking the health of the community.

After years of problems, Former President Rodrigo Duterte decided to close Boracay for six months in April 2018. The closure took place in February 2018, and it didn’t reopen until October with a new tourism management action plan. This would limit the number of tourists per day to the island. 

Waterfall, Moalboal, Philippines
The Philippines has some incredible natural wonders that can’t be missed!

Today, Boracay is open for travel, and the numbers are slowly increasing. Almost 5000 international visitors arrived on the island in April 2022. Hopefully, a better strategy is now in place to protect the beautiful beaches of Boracay, so it stays one of the best places to visit for years to come. 

A Delicate Balancing Act

It is important to mention that most of these concerns were noted pre-pandemic. Today, much of Southeast Asia is now recovering from a different kind of tourism issue; not enough.  

Both overtourism and an absence of tourism can cause problems in much of Southeast Asia, where the majority of destinations rely on travellers to some degree economically.

The lesson we can learn here is the importance of balance. Too much and we see the stress on both the community and the environment. Too little and we see the closure of businesses and lack of income. 

Now that Southeast Asia is opening up to tourism again, many tourist hotspots get the opportunity to start again. 

Hopefully, local tourism boards and governments have learnt from past mistakes. They have had time to develop new and innovative strategies for visitor management, waste disposal, environmental sustainability and wildlife protection among other vital areas of development. 

Only time will tell, and we as tourists have an essential role to play in making sure we don’t harm the places that we travel to. 

Avoiding Overtourism: Responsible Travel Tips

A few tips to consider when planning your travels:

  • Don’t just go for the photo. It is not uncommon to see long lines of visitors queuing to take a selfie at an iconic tourist destination. Instead, consider all the other beautiful places in the surrounding area where you could go to take photos.
  • Support the local economy. Pay a tour guide, order lunch, or book a night in a family-run guesthouse. These things all keep money in the local community. 
  • Plan your trips/visits to attractions wisely. This will cause less stress on the local infrastructure, free up restaurants and parking, and spread out the number of visitors during opening hours. Off-peak travel or low-season travel is also worth considering when planning your adventures in Southeast Asia.
  • Be conscious of how much you share. Don’t underestimate your power as a traveller. If you bring attention to a specific place suggest a few things, from where to go, eat, and sleep. Make sure to tell people what else there is to do instead of focusing solely on the main tourist attraction. 

So, what do you think? Let us know in the comments below! 

Cherie Julie | Travel For Change Collective

Cherie founded a responsible tourism blog, Travel For Change, in 2016 with the desire to encourage other travellers to wander with purpose. Today the blog has transformed into a copywriting business for mindful brands where Cherie writes on a variety of topics such as the environment, human rights, animal welfare and sustainable travel.

Find her on: Instagram

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