Trouble in paradise

Let me start by saying I’m writing this about Phú Quốc island. The island is currently undergoing massive construction, a population boom, and redevelopment of existing properties into larger, more upscale resorts and western restaurants. With the exception of the Long Beach area, the island is covered in trash and construction debris. It is truly tragic.

My perspective on the pollution issue is somewhat more professional than just as an environmentalist who hates trash. I’m a geologist. I work in environmental consulting. I specialize in assessment and remediation of pollution. I also love traveling to developing countries but I’ve never seen such a pretty place going through such unsustainable development before.

Right now I’m in Phú Quốc, a little island off the coast of Vietnam. What I’m writing is as much a eulogy as much as it is a reminder to expect more of yourself when you travel. This place will never be the same again and we let this happen. This is happening here because the local people see an opportunity for economic growth and they are taking it. They want jobs and food and education for their children. This has historically been a beautiful but poor island. The locals are getting a chance at economic prosperity in exchange for total environmental destruction.

First off, ignore anything you see or hear about this little paradise from before 2018. They don’t apply anymore. As of this writing, Phú Quốc island is under an unbridled construction boom. The whole island looks, sounds, and smells like a construction site. All that construction means bare ground and disturbed soil. Now, if you are like me then you do a little reading about a place before you visit it. I did plenty of reading when I booked travel to Phú Quốc. Everyone said that the island is under construction but what they didn’t explain was how much. There are at least 20 huge skyrises and many hundreds of smaller hotels each under construction right now. Add to that a few hundred large plots that could sustain skyscrapers and have already been cleared and you have the makings for another 100,000 holiday makers at a time on this little paradise island. It will never be the same again. The government has a stated goal of increasing the tourist population by 10 times in the next few years.

Why won’t it be the same again? Is it dirty? Yeah, but there is more to it than that. There is no trash management or cleanup worth mentioning on the island so that means most of the trash you generate on the island gets burned or buried someplace in this tropical paradise. A huge prob of that waste is buried just behind the resorts or right next to the roads. Maybe that can change if the tourists make it happen but they aren’t yet motivated now.

Why can’t it be the same after the development is picture? One of the biggest draws to this island is the crystal clear water. It is fantastic for snorkeling, and great seafood. All the sediment, construction debris, trash, and human waste are clouding the water and polluting the coastline. It won’t get better with 10 times more hotel guests. With all this new construction comes sediment washing into the ocean all around the island and once that disturbs the sea life habitat it takes years to recover. Flying into the area you can’t help but see what is practically a halo of dirt coming off the island in every direction. Dirt means you can’t see through the water. The ocean is cloudy from added nutrients and clay from the soil washed into the water. The delicate water chemistry changes and the ecosystem you came here for dies. Environments like this are slow to adapt but are ruined quickly.

Why do I say there is no going back? Once this ecosystem changes it will not recover in our lifetime. Also, this island can’t sustain the existing holiday makers, let alone another 100,000 beds. If you came here before then I suggest you hold on to the memory and never come back. If you are thinking about it for the first time then go someplace else or just accept that you are contributing to this islands rapid demise. This island is already being pushed too far. Maybe once Phú Quốc starts picking up trash and treating it’s waste water things will get better, but it will never be paradise.

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