In 1984, I was backpacking through Southeast Asia. I'd spent weeks exploring northern Thailand's cultural sites and Bangkok's attractions, and I was looking for a beach. Phuket Island was already popular and had a well-developed tourism infrastructure, but Ko Samui, an island in the Gulf of Thailand, sounded more to my liking.
It required an eight-hour bus ride from Bangkok, followed by a 35-mile ferry trip. There was one pleasant-looking, 25-room hotel on the island, but I and the other dozen or so visitors who arrived on that day's ferry ended up renting huts on the beach for two or three dollars a night.
At the time, Ko Samui was as close to paradise as one can imagine. There was nothing much to do other than lie on a hammock under palm tree-lined beaches. One could, if feeling energetic, go to the market (which openly sold, among other things, psychedelic mushrooms) or rent a motorcycle and circumnavigate the 13-mile-wide island, stopping to swim along the way at any of dozens of virtually empty beaches or refresh at roadside shacks.
Today, Ko Samui still has the beautiful beaches, but any sense of seclusion is long gone. After an airport was opened on the island in 1989, the inevitable occurred. Today, it receives 1 million visitors a year. Booking.com now lists about 500 hotels, and McDonald's, Starbucks and other chains have taken root. Luxury hotel brands have built large resorts with enough options that some guests never leave the boundaries of their property.
The story is not unfamiliar, and you can swap out the name "Ko Samui" for, say, "Playa del Carmen" in Mexico or "Tamarindo" in Costa Rica, and a time-proven pattern emerges: An attractive, undeveloped destination is identified, and as surely as a nameless contestant becomes an American Idol, development and popularity ensue.
It's easy to bemoan the loss of the very characteristics that once upon a time made a place special to us as travelers, but to complain about it is akin to grumbling that Walmart has killed Main Street shops.
Objectively speaking, both occur as a result of basic economic forces that are unlikely to change: If marketers can generate demand, supply will grow in proportion.
In travel, however, a specific set of opportunities, challenges and complications ensues when a destination is targeted for development. The possibility for environmental degradation is increased, and when global brands move in, the characteristics that make a destination unique recede.
On the other hand, jobs are created and the level of satisfaction experienced by greater numbers of visitors can be measured and can be quite high. Who is to say that a destination is better served as a retreat for an elite few?
While there will be some backlash among those who knew a destination's former glory, this criticism will be inherently muted. The lack of repeat business from the early adopters goes unnoticed by those benefiting from the higher traffic they've generated.
Demand for leisure travel is predicted to increase significantly as emerging economies create middle classes that begin to explore the world, and it's likely that pressure to develop hitherto unspoiled destinations will go up in tandem.
Which raises an interesting question: Can a pattern that on the surface seems good and necessary for the travel industry, but which decreases the number of "special places," ultimately be good for the industry?
Perhaps for some, yes. The concentration of tourists in certain areas might make that place less desirable for those looking for something "undiscovered," but it also draws people away from the remaining places which, in economic terms, are in a state of underdemand.
Every year at Travel Weekly's Leadership Forum in Mexico City, I hear representatives of the country's fascinating interior destinations plead in vain with airlines to provide service and for wholesalers to list them in brochures.
There is opportunity here for travel agents. While product knowledge of developed areas provides the business foundation for most agents, the rising emphasis on expert counsel and advice -- for which a fee is paid -- increases the need for agents to be able to cater to clients who want to go off the grid.
Finding unspoiled destinations and refining the ability to suss out whether a client is truly willing to forgo the point-to-point comfort offered by well-developed resort areas will become increasingly important as the number of travelers grows and the number of special places shrinks.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.