Tonga resort holds out against mass tourism wave

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The Independent Online

There are no signs pointing the way to Tonga's oldest surf resort, only a palm-fringed road riddled with potholes that presents many blind turns for the unwary traveller - just the way owner Steve Burling likes it.

For more than 30 years, Burling has refused to use glossy brochures or advertising to promote his Ha'atafu Beach Resort, determined to prevent the Pacific idyll becoming a "tourist trap" like many other surfing destinations.

"We're not on a money trip here at all. It's all about family and having a good lifestyle," said the Australian, who married his Tongan wife Seskia and set up the resort on the tiny nation's main island Tongatapu in 1979.

"We don't want busloads of tourists coming down from town and disrupting our set up, we want our guests to have a nice, peaceful holiday."

Auckland University eco-tourism expert Ward Friesen regards attitudes such as Burling's as a rarity in a field where the rewards of mass tourism often take precedence over maintaining sustainable development.

Friesen said "adventure tourists", such as surfers and backpackers, were typically the first to travel to exotic, off-the-beaten-track destinations.

But in doing so, he said, they also inadvertently paved the way for mass tourism to follow in their wake, forever changing the unspoiled location they had worked so hard to find as humble huts give way to luxury hotels.

"They tend to go to places which haven't been developed because that's where the waves are," he said.

"Over time, there's definitely a measurable decline in the resources that they're looking for in the first place, the reefs and beautiful surroundings."

It's a pattern Burling, part of a generation of Western surfers who explored Asia looking for new waves in the 1970s, is familiar with.

"Surfers pioneered a lot of places in Bali that were just sleepy little villages but had great waves," he said.

"Then tourism changed the whole nature of the place, people's lifestyles changed completely."

Friesen said the proliferation of guidebooks such as Lonely Planet had accelerated the speed with which a destination could transform from obscurity into "the next big thing".

"They say 'here's the new hot place of the year, almost undiscovered' then thousands of copies of Lonely Planet get printed and the next year there's hordes of people going there," he said.

"Just one paragraph can make a huge difference to a place. It's certainly a phenomenon."

Lonely Planet said similar suggestions had been made since it began publishing the 1970s, adding: "We are not a tour operator and, ultimately, individuals make their own decisions on where they travel, not Lonely Planet.

"Lonely Planet's role is, and will always be, to provide objective and accurate travel information to help inform that decision," it said.

Friesen said developing tourism was a fine balancing act, pointing out that locals benefitted if it was done properly, even if some adventure travellers no longer regarded their favourite destination as an unspoiled paradise.

"In some of these places, local people are very excited about the prospect of getting more tourists in," he said.

"From one point of view it's spoiling a place but from another it's bringing in more income than local people have ever seen before, more than they can ever get growing rice or coconuts."

Burling shares a similar view, saying tourism at his resort, which accommodates less than 30 people, provides jobs for his wife's extended family while allowing them to maintain their Tongan culture.

His Ha'atafu retreat boasts beautiful white sandy beaches with surf breaks that could easily support a luxury resort in a more tourist-friendly destination such as Fiji.

Yet facilities are basic, with a single shower block, only cold water for guests and accommodation consisting of traditional thatched "fale" huts with no minibars, televisions or other extras demanded by most modern tourists.

Burling said his reliance on word-of-mouth recommendations, usually groups of surfers, meant his guests came with "a real travellers attitude - we're not getting many people who want the five-star experience".

"I don't want to have a place which is so busy it prevents me from sitting down with my guests and sharing dinner," he said.

"If you start getting that pump 'em in, pump 'em out attitude, then you're off track yourself."