Mass Tourism without Caution can Spell Disaster

Earlier this spring I learned about a problem in the Maldives that is being referred to as an apocalyptic island of waste.  The Maldives’ Thilafushi Island, better known as Garbage Island, is the world’s largest floating garbage dump.  The issue received international attention this spring when the BBC published a May 19 article and video about it.

Thilafushi Island is a man-made island created for waste disposal purposes in 1992.  Since the tourism industry has flourished in the Maldives, Thilafushi Island now boasts the unsavory title of world’s largest rubbish island.  It is a seven mile long, oceanic platform of stinky, burning garbage.  So much waste is brought to this island; the waste is actually reclaiming land for the Island causing it to grow one square meter per day!  The garbage is burned twenty-four hours a day, in open fires on the island. 

Plastic, oil, batteries, and other toxic materials, are often lumped in with the rest of the trash and burned, producing a highly toxic smoke.  In a 2011 Al-Jazeera video titled “Maldives ‘trashing’ an island”, environmental activist Ahmed Ikram stated “the tourism industry is not ethically or morally doing their work”.  The video sheds light on how the Maldivian Government pays Bangladeshis workers, who pick through the island garbage by hand looking for recyclables to sell, to burn what they don’t pick out. 

By its nature, an island is a very poor choice to locate a landfill.  Garbage is spilling from the side of the island into the sea, and there is much concern that the toxins from the trash leech below the porous base of the island and into the sea.  High tides, waves, or a rise in sea level, could sweep massive amounts of pollutants into the sea.

An estimated 850,000 tourists visited the Maldives in 2011 producing an approximated 3.5kg of waste each, per day they stayed there.  Shina Ahmed of the Thilafushi Corporation works on the island and estimates the garbage coming to the island is about “300-400 tons of trash per day”.    The 300-400 tons per day does not represent the total amount of garbage created by the Maldivian tourist industry.  Garbage, in recent years, has become second only to fish as the region’s most exported good.  Select waste materials are compacted and sold to India for around $175US per ton.

The Thilafushi Corporation runs this Island and their website lists their Components as follows:

1. International Port

2. Warehousing Facilities

3. Industrial Plots for Large Production Facilities

4. National Harbor and Ro-Ro Ferry Services.

The objectives:

1. Establish a commercially viable Industrial Zone in the Greater Male’ Region.

2. Act as a catalyst to growth of the Medium to Heavy Industries, thus promoting economic growth.

3. Reduce cost of products and services via reduction of storage and warehousing costs, and goods import overheads.

4. Reduce congestion in the Capital City Male’, thus improve the quality of in the city.

There is no typing errors or information left out of these components and objectives, they are exactly as written on June 14 2012.  This is a Maldivian Government funded company that oversees the ‘Garbage Island’.  I was very surprised not to see any mention of waste management in their components or any desire for environmental improvement in their objectives.

This waste on Thilafushi Island is not a new problem.  Although the BBC’s short exposé about the island brought much needed attention to the issue, the problem has existed on a catastrophic level for years, and is simply continuing to get worse.  There were several attempts in 2009, on YouTube, and by various media companies, to draw attention to this island.  Now in 2012, it is reported by the BBC that things have not improved.  Perhaps most shocking of all is that in January 2009 The Guardian’s south Asian correspondent Randeep Ramesh reported that, then newly appointed Maldivian President, Mohamed Nasheed’s solution to save his people in the event of an environmental crisis was to start putting aside some of the Maldives’ tourism revenues to buy another homeland.  It is unimaginable what consequences would result from leaving behind Thilafushi Island unattended.

The only way to address issues like this is to demand responsibility from the organizations that create these problems.  There is much talk about what the government should do, and in the Aljazeera video it was mentioned that the international community has for years spoken of providing the Maldives with the proper facilities to handle the waste.  Mohamad Aslam, Maldives Environment Minister said that “the world doesn’t wait for all these procedures and processes to be completed; I think people need to start speeding up and fast track things”.

These solutions are only directing the responsibility for the problem away from where it should lay.  The waste is the responsibility of the corporations that create it.  It is not responsible to build a huge tourist attraction, bring thousands of people to a small island community and expect that a third party should to have to deal with the waste.  This crisis is a matter of financial responsibility.  The waste created that is being dropped on this island is a byproduct of the revenue being generated by the neighboring resorts.  These resorts should be held financially responsible for both repairing what has been done, and providing the facilities to allow the area to sustain further mass tourism.  I understand that in more developed parts of the world, the cost of waste disposal and management does not solely fall on the shoulders of the hospitality location, but in this case it has to be viewed as the additional expense of operating in such a remote and beautiful area.

Hospitality businesses around the world are beginning to catch on to the need for corporate responsibility on their behalves.  I realize that I am probably preaching to the choir considering the likely readers of this blog, but the more we discuss it, the more likely that something will be done about it.  Travelers and tourists need to set the bar by refusing to travel to hospitality locations that are environmentally irresponsible.  There are a million ways to reduce waste at resort and hotel locations, Dispenser Amenities’ products being just the tip of the iceberg.  The beauty of the Maldives and all other locations need to be preserved and enjoyed responsibly with the future of our planet in mind!   

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