There is silver lining to the smog over Malaysia. It will choke us into action
PASSPORT; SARA WHEELER
Sunday 28 September 1997
In the short term, of course, they will be more concerned about saving this year's holiday. Tour operators such as Thomson's Holidays are waiving cancellation penalties for anyone currently booked on a Malaysian holiday who doesn't want a sulphurous smog to come between them and their suntan.
This isn't just an outbreak of mass hysteria, by the way. The smog has apparently been so bad that flights have been diverted from Phuket, the sparkling jewel in Thailand's crown, because of poor visibility. Even Bali, the ultimate "island paradise", is not entirely in the clear.
So is this an irredeemable nightmare? Well, yes - except that the apocalyptic symbolism is so perfect that the world cannot fail to notice it.
Until now, the whole point of going to places like Malaysia was to escape the smoggy grey cities of the industrial north. White beaches, turquoise waters and lush palm trees were the perfect antidote to industry, pollution and acid rain. Now though, while Indonesian peasants stumble blindly towards ecological suicide, a cloud is literally forming over the holiday playgrounds of the rich. In a grotesquely superb irony, the so-called paradise of the brochures is turning into an inferno.
You can see it now: holiday-makers on beaches sitting up in horror as great grey palls of sooty smoke plunge their brochure-world into the tropical equivalent of an east London housing estate, while bright yellow parakeets fade to ash and carefully chosen swimwear becomes instantaneously redundant.
What I am getting at is that this particular "pollution incident" is far more likely to affect the people whose salaries matter than any number of distant ecological disasters. Life-threatening levels of smog do not, for example, concern many people when they are confined to industrial cities in Manchuria and Siberia. But when they suddenly envelope the places where people want to take their holidays, something urgent obviously needs to be done.
What could better drive home the message that something is wrong with our world, than exhaust fumes with our satay? Or sooty beaches, drooping palm trees? What more vividly real nightmare could there be? Children coming home from the Seychelles with raised levels of lead in their blood? Acid rain turning the Bahamas brown? The Antarctic turning black?
There is a good chance that the current smog will all be over very quickly. I was told by Phillip Brown of the PA weather centre that it is nothing that won't be blown away by a bit of wind or rain. If a bit of wind or rain turns up, that is.
But this is a long-term problem. Perhaps in the future there will be another smog that will persist for years. Some predict that even the current smog could last a few months. Will Southeast Asia just get written off as last year's one-holiday wonder? Will world tourism simply move on to the next playground, before it too falls prey to pollution?
Surely not. I suspect that when rainforest destruction starts hitting our holidays the penny may begin to drop, and the prospect of something like a global holiday tax may suddenly seem rather desirable. How about an environmental tax, to be levied on holidays in parts of the world that need it? After all, what is the price of paradise? Tourists looking to buy bits of it can hardly complain at having to contribute to the relatively trivial costs of preserving the rainforests of Sumatra.
You can blame the disaster on El Nino, you can blame it on the Indonesian government, you can blame it on the excessive world demand for palm oil and rubber. You can even blame it on the illiterate peasants whose livelihood comes from setting fire to forests. But global tourism, the world's biggest industry, is in by far the best position to do something about it.
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