Anyone lamenting how much harder it’s getting to go off the beaten track might want to read this rather evocative piece on Laos from The Globe and Mail.
“Here,” Ellen Himelfarb writes dreamily of the landlocked little country that time forgot, “you can still board an empty longboat for a late-afternoon cruise to an obscure hillside village”, swim for a few dollars a head in the pool of the most luxurious hotel without needing to rent a room, have the pachyderms to yourself at an elephant sanctuary and “share an acre of tropical gardens with one French-Lao couple from Paris for several hours”.
It sounds charmingly lo-fi. So much so that I, along with The Globe and Mail’s one-million strong readership, will mentally file Laos away as a must-visit destination.
And that’s the problem with talking up off-the-beaten-track places. They smoothly slide on to the beaten track every time they’re described as virgin territory.
So, how many tourists are too many? It’s a good question and each country must answer it individually now that tourist trails seem spread pretty much everywhere across the planet and according to this estimate, the international tourist traffic was a staggering one billion last year.
Totting up the monetary and spiritual implications of tourism could be an interesting form of national cost-benefit analysis. One that might be of value even to countries such as Haiti, which is now engaged in courting tourists in an attempt to return to its golden age as the destination of choice. As Haiti’s tourism minister recently told me, “we are coming to this late but one of the good things about that, is that we can learn from the mistakes of other (Caribbean) countries.” She was emphatic that Haiti was not ambitious to be another Jamaica and demarcate the tourism sector from the lives of its people. So far, so wise. But Haiti is so firmly off the beaten track, any choices it makes in the tourism sector are surely far off in the future.
Then again, for Bhutan, famously and self-confessedly ‘cautious’ about mass-market tourism, 105,414 visitors were quite enough last year. Bhutan is off the beaten track because it has made sure it is not an option for anyone but the well-heeled. That is to say, people willing to spend at least $250 a day (and that’s not counting air fare). For the Bhutanese, it makes more sense to preserve their environment, culture, customs (which is probably just a long way of saying they want their own space) than to perform for the pleasure of the uncouth hordes. This was pretty apparent when I visited Thimphu in 2009 but the lyrically lo-fi nature of the place made up for any sense of aloofness. Perhaps in Bhutan, there is really no track whatsoever – beaten or otherwise.