When tourism goes awry

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Vang Vieng: the once tiny town whose #1 tourist activity remains slashed from Lonely Planet’s printing presses due to the high accident rate. Seemingly, Lonely Planet is not the only reference young backpackers mindlessly use (although this must be an exception), since this town is aglow with white 20-somethings with no ability to control their alcohol consumption. And for 6 days we’ve been stuck here. Waiting out a monsoon.

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The last week has presented a number of challenges for us- pouring rain and bad dirt roads and electrical outages aside. We’ve been waiting this weather out from a town that has lost much of it’s culture due to tourism. The infamous dilemma that plagues the travel world has become a paramount study in our day to day lives… Tourism helps the local economy, but in turn it alters the culture of a place. Where is the tipping point? When does tourism destroy the very thing it set out to celebrate?

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Vang Vieng is a perfect example of tourism’s dark side. A small riverside town adorned with dramatic karst formations and thick tropical forest, it is breathtaking. In 1999, a farmer threw a few tracktor tubes into the river for his backpacking volunteers to enjoy on their day off. He started a revolution. Fast forward a decade: tuk tuks line up every morning to take travelers up the river with their rented tubes, where they will participate in what is arguably the most creative bar crawl on earth. Thumping bass emanates from the riverbanks throughout the day. Tubing bars along the waterway throw out ropes to tow people in. Free shots are handed out while young travelers throw more and more money onto the bar in anticipation of the next bucket of cocktails. Rope swings and rickety slides are offered up for the drunk and adventurous to test the quality of their insurance premiums. It is a party like none other. It brings in wads of cash at the sacrifice of the town’s image and culture. It is a place that most any 19 year old will decree ‘the coolest place ever’. And we can’t help but feel caught in between.

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Back in town, the four main streets are alive and prospering. Every other shop in town hawks “In The Tubing” tank tops, and from what we’ve witnessed everyone buys one. Restaurants have developed a way to cater to the busloads of young travelers: setting up lounge style seating in front of big screens that loop Friends and Family Guy episodes throughout the day and night. Hungry after a tough day of tubing? Purchase some badly made western food from the kitchen, indulge in a happy shake, and lose the afternoon. This scene is played out multiple times on every street here, everyday of the year.

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It is embarrassing to ponder over what the locals must think of the western world. If this is the representation we are offering up: drunk, stoned, privileged white kids who go traveling and do little else but party too much and then sit glued to a television set for hours. The message doesn’t say much of anything impressive.

What is the benefit of tourism if this is the culture some towns are forced into presenting? It is a question we’ve been asking ourselves repeatedly over the last week, and ultimately the reason we are still arguing over whether to go tubing or to leave without the experience. We remain steadfastly undecided.

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