This COVID-19 has turned the travel industry up-side-down, particularly on overseas travel. As of July 2021, most countries around the globe either remain closed or impose a slew of travel restrictions for international tourists. For Asia, the restrictions are even worse – “crazy” actually. Tokyo 2020 Olympics was held without spectators, 14-day quarantines for international arrivals across many countries, no indoor dining, no gathering of more than two per party. Enough said?
While international travel has taken a vicious blow by the pandemic, there are some positives when the travel inevitably resumes. Leading up to the pandemic, overtourism had truly gotten out of hand around the world. Just think Venice and the Amalfi Coast in Italy, Machu Picchu in Peru, the once-upon-of-time pristine beaches of Thailand and Greece, and sacred spots revered for their spirituality such as Bali’s Ubud and Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. The list goes on and on. In short, as painful as COVID-19 is for the tourism industry, a reset was desperately needed. Hopefully, this calamity gives birth to opportunities for countries that suffered from overtourism to do things right this go-around when doors swing open once again.
Having traveled just about all of Asia and numerous countries around the world, here are my five destinations when the world is ready to welcome visitors once again.
1. The Beaches of Thailand
Thailand is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world, and rightfully so. It boasts stunning beaches, out-of-this-world culinary delights, dazzling landmarks, and countless activities & entertainment options that simply spell “FUN”.
Thailand’s economy relies very heavily on tourism, so much that it dedicated itself to promoting tourism to the masses. While Thailand has always been a popular holiday spot amongst European and to a smaller extent, American travelers, there has been a significant surge from huge population centers such as India and China over the past 10 or so years. The effects of overtourism in Thailand could not be more jarring. Prior to the pandemic, would-be pristine destinations like the iconic Phi Phi islands were filled with roaring motorcrafts spewing exhaust fumes, crowds everywhere, and dead, ash-color coral reefs where marine life once thrived. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that the Thai Government closed Maya Bay in May 2019 for two years in hopes marine life resuscitates after realizing 80% of its corals were destroyed. In Phuket, Patong became Miami’s South Beach with drunken tourists, heart-pounding bars & nightclubs, and horrendous traffic everywhere. Gone were the friendly and playful local vendors after years of abuse from ugly tourists. Koh Samui’s once beautiful Chaweng Beach experienced the same thing. No doubt popular beach destinations like Phuket, Koh Phi Phi and Koh Samui took the brunt of mass tourism, but these effects can be seen throughout much of Thailand.
Fast forward to 2021, virtually all foreign tourists had been banned from entering Thailand due to the pandemic. As Thailand re-opens its borders, it appears to be taking a more measured approach to get a better handle on inbound visitors. Hopefully, there will be better controls put in place going forward but only time can tell. For now, when the “Land of Smiles” does open its doors, get there and get there fast – when the fishes are back, the beaches once again resemble those on postcards, and locals warmly welcome you with open arms. It’ll be a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience Amazing Thailand it hasn’t see in decades. You can check out Explorient’s arsenal of Thailand tours here.
2. Italy – The Italian Riviera & Amalfi Coast
When our famiy of four planned our two week trip to Italy in 2019, nothing excited us more than the prospect of spending 6 nights along the coast between Italian Riviera and the Amalfi Coast. Our long-awaited vacation back to Italy after 20 years couldn’t come soon enough.
When we finally got there, it was “WOW”. But not a good way. For us, disappointment would be an understatement. Yes, everything you see on the beautiful photos plastered across the Internet is still there – the colorful villages, emerald waters, breathtaking cliffs, cobblestone alleyways. But what you don’t see in those amazing photos were the crowds, hoards and hoards of them. Our introduction to Cinque Terre, or “The Five Towns”, began at Manarola. As none of these tiny seaside villages were intended for mass tourism, access and parking was a big problem. After having waited two hours for a spot, we were greeted with huge tourist crowds, overpriced restaurants and practically nowhere to find a place to even sit. Being this was our first introduction to Cinque Terra, we still enjoyed the day and made the most of it jumping off the jagged rocks into the crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
Unfortunately, our quest for that serene picturesque Italian coastal village went downhill from there. Town after town, same thing. The worst and final straw for us was Positano, the acclaimed crown jewel and poster child of the Amalfi Coast. After an hour searching for parking, plus another 40 minutes trekking down to the beach, we were greeted with utter shock. Yes shock. The beach was so crowded it was literally suffocating. It was near impossible to find a spot on the sand for the four of us to sit (forget lying down!). The beach was one of the worst beaches I’ve ever stepped foot on – tourists packed shoulder to shoulder on a small patch of brown pebbly beach. Take a dip in the water and you’ll be disgusted by the amount of pollution left by the thousands of beachgoers and the onslaught of motorboats big and small coming in and out of the pier. Yuck! Village after village, from the Italian Riviera down to the Amalfi coast, the story was the same. Crowed, touristy, polluted and unbecoming of anything that resembles a relaxing vacation.
As of the summer of 2021, vaccinated travelers can now enter Italy. Like Thailand, Italy too is trying to hit the reset button by implementing measures to lessen the wrath of overtourism. Prior to the pandemic, Venice receives 30 million visitors a year wreaking havoc on the mere 50,000 residents who actually live there. Going forward, Venice will track the number and movement of visitors using mobile phones and ban cruise ships from docking its shores effective August 1, 2021 (thank God!). While some controls are being put in place to mitigate the effects of the masses flocking to this beautiful country, success remains a tall if not impossible task. This is why Italy sits prominently on our “Go Now” list.
Very few places on Earth rival Peru’s plethora of breathtaking landscapes, stunning archaeological marvels, alluring culture and mouthwatering cuisine. Synonymous with Peru is Machu Picchu, a 15th century Incan Citadel nestled atop a mountain ridge in the Andes at nearly 8,000 above sea level. It has lured visitors from the world over and holds the honor of being the World’s Best Tourist Attraction in 2018 by World Tourism Awards, and the No. 1 Landmark in the World by TripAdvisor.
Unfortunately, such popularity comes with a price. It has gone from hosting 80,000 tourists in 1991 to a mind-boggling 1.5 million in 2018. Even with a daily limit of 2,500 visitors, Machu Picchu is slowly eroding by foot traffic and on the verge of becoming a monument in danger. But because Peru generates top dollars from tourism (3.9% of GDP employing over 1.4 million jobs), the Peruvian government has no plans to put a lid on slowing the influx of international tourists. In fact, prior to the pandemic, the government had approved another airport in the Cuzco region and upping the daily visitor cap at Machu Picchu to 5,000+, doubling that of the recommended number by UNESCO. This is devastating both for the sacred grounds and the region itself for a variety of obvious reasons. But for the visitor traveling half-way across the world to see this spectacular sight, the magic is drastically muted by long queues and selfie sticks.
Peru is an awe-inspiring country full of mysteries and deservingly sits atop everyone’s wish list. So if you want to see that serene, spiritual version of Peru, get there before the flood gate reopens. Check out Explorient’s suite of highly exclusive Latin American trips including the great Machu Picchu.
4. Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Our fourth destination on the “Go Now” list is Siem Reap, Cambodia, home of the magnificent Angkor. Built in the first half of the 12th century by King Suryayarman II, Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument ever constructed in the history of mankind. It is arguably the most beautiful and impressive historical edifice. Its magnificence and mightiness surpass that of the Pyramids and its artistic beauty rivals that of the Taj Mahal. The Angkor Wat temple complex is just one of numerous spectacular ancient ruins of the great Khmer Empire in tiny Siem Reap. Amongst the most popular include Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, Bantey Srei, Ta Keo, Preah Khan and many others.
Ever since Angkor was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1992 coupled with the stabilization of the Cambodian government, tourism to the tiny city of Siem Reap had exploded fifty folds – going from less than 120K visitors in 1993 to over 6.2 million in 2018. The ugly effects of overtourism couldn’t be more evident here. Leading up to the pandemic, Angkor Wat was inundated with caravans of tour buses and throngs of tourists with selfie-sticks at sunrise, any air of mystery at the Jungle Temple (Ta Prohm) was completely extinguished by the sheer amount of foot traffic, “Bar Street” in downtown Siem Reap hijacked by mobile bars (carts with boomboxes and pretty ladies selling booze), massage parlors and nightclubs. Gone is the spirituality this ancient city once symbolized.
Today, with Cambodia just about cut off from the rest of the world thanks (but no thanks) to COVID-19, it’s gotten a much needed 1.5 year respite. Since Cambodia receives huge amounts of tourism dollars, it is unlikely the government has any plans to curb mass tourism. When this COVID thing is all over, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see both the ancient city and local people in their original state – beautiful, spiritual, and unadulterated.
My fifth and final post-pandemic pick is Bali. This tiny Indonesian island was reintroduced to the world by the hit movie “Eat Pray Love” where Bali was depicted as a serene tropical paradise for spirituality and relaxation. Well, since this tantalizing Julia Roberts flick hit the shelves in 2010, everyone began flocking to quiet little Bali and the number of visitors skyrocketed by 135% in ten short years. To put it in perspective, that amazing photo of Lempuyang Temple’s Gates of Heaven which recently became a symbol of Bali where every travel influencer prizes on their Instagram requires a two-hour drive from the beach plus a 2-hour wait for that 30 second pic! Most pictures are worth a thousand words – this one apparently shows only one side of the story. Moreover, many areas around Bali have become so tourist-focused that it has lost its local charm for which the destination is famous. In certain areas around the beach, one could be hard-pressed to tell the difference between Indonesia and Cancun Mexico.
In closing, I think it’s fair to say we all want to start traveling again. But this also means EVERYONE; so it’s important to prioritize which spots to hit first before the masses arrive. There is no double this is a small window but with proper planning and the right help from an expert travel advisor, your long-awaited next trip abroad can be as rewarding as ever.