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Home / Economics  /
The Well Paved Road To Overdevelopment
overdevelopment

It all ends with strip malls of McDonald's and 7 11's


Way back in 2003, while walking along a semi-deserted beach with some rustic resorts outside Cancun (Mexico), my brother remarked that in the future, travelers would be willing to pay a hefty premium to stay in simpler places.  

Sounds strange to say that.  Usually, it works in reverse.   At first, primitive bungalows are setup in a tranquil deserted locale, probably not even with 24/7 electricity. Frugal and/or adventurous backpackers take the plunge.  As the serene area becomes better known, more affluent people journey in and new entrepreneurs establish more comfortable and pricier accommodation. Eventually, the resorts move in with their swimming pools, jacuzzis, and luxurious restaurants and charge premium prices.  

But overall, my brother was right. It wasn't even such prescient statement in 2003. Globalization was in full vogue by then and multinational hotel operators had already moved into previously off-the-beaten-track locations with a vengeance.  

What my brother meant was that with globalization on its way to developing every square inch, some consumers would be willing to pay a premium to go back to the basics.   It's simple supply and demand. If most everywhere is already exploited and developed, the supply of virginal places becomes limited. With enough demand, it would be quite possible for the prices of the simpler places in the middle of nowhere to exceed that of the luxurious and well developed resorts in the center of everywhere.

I've seen excessive development firsthand.  I came to Thailand for the first time in 1994 and went diving on the island of Koh Tao, then mostly jungle with a few primitive $2-4 bungalows along the beachline. Eleven years later I revisited and barely recognized the place.  It was a bit like running into someone you haven't seen in 25 years.  You remember what this person used to look like and can spot traces of the man he once was in the now bald and obese specimen standing before you. A lot of the jungle on Koh Tao had been razed in the intervening 11 years and massage parlors, ATM machines, hotels littered the island. The last time I was there in 2007, there were three 7 11's.  

But in the scheme of things, Koh Tao in 2005 and 2007 was still on the early road to development. The eastern side of the island housed a few luxury facilities, but the roads to that side were still in dilapidated condition. It is not hard to foresee that in the next decade a well developed road network will be crisscrossing the island and resorts and bungalows will be dotting every nook and cranny, much like what's happened to the popular beaches on Phuket on the Andaman Coast side of Thailand. 

In January of 2015, after attending a Sikh wedding in Chiang Mai, I finally made it up to the beautiful mountain town of Pai. I say finally because I'd heard of this place for years and just never had an occasion to make it up there. Pai is a dramatic case study in lightning fast development.   Had I visited Pai during my first visit to Thailand in 1994, I would have seen a tiny market town set amidst some beautiful hilly scenery. There would have been a few basic guesthouses and restaurants.   Today, Pai is besieged by tourists. A 2009 Thai film called Pai In Love made the place extremely popular amongst Thais. A smash low budget Chinese film Lost In Thailand did the same thing for Chinese tourists. 

It isn't that Pai is really all that developed.  No one would mistake it for New York City or Bangkok.  It's just more developed than it used to be. Whether you'd classify Pai as another overdevelopment case largely depends on the first time you came to Pai. 

Before 1967, there wasn't even a road between the popular northern city of Chiang Mai and Pai, and it wasn't until the 1990's that the Thai government got around to paving this road. As is usually the case, some Western hippy traveler from the late 1970's probably stopped here accidentally, liked the laid back vibe, breathtaking scenery, and inexpensive cost of living, and stayed.  He later recommends it to a few friends who then recommend it to a few more.   Without the internet, Facebook pages, Twitter, Instagram, and all the other social networking wonders we know today, the word spread slowly. Sometime in the 1980's most likely, a guide book writer showed up and wrote about it. As guide books became more and more popular and people started treating them as the gospel, the previous trickles of tourists would have expanded into puddles. Things would have still remained basic at this stage. There just would have been more choices in terms of barebones guesthouses, restaurants, and bike rental outlets copying the initial businesses to meet the growing demand. 

A bit later, a foreigner, who's been dropping in for years already, makes up his mind to relocate permanently.   What kind of business can he establish to support himself? "Well, there's no pizza parlor here," he thinks. Why not set up one? The tourists and long term residents already there welcome the addition. It's an improvement on the previously mundane dining scene.  Another foreigner notices the success of the first and concludes that he, too, can make a go at relocation fulltime. He'll setup a beer bar offering imported craft beers. This, too, is welcomed, and why wouldn't it be? A couple of new businesses have minimal impact on the local vibe.  

In the beginning. Over time their presence makes the place more familiar to those who wouldn't have dare set foot there earlier, which brings yet more crowds. And with more crowds comes more accommodation possibilities.   We could be talking about any place now.   Someone sets up a pool bar café/hotel.  Another decides to build a luxury resort. The 7 11's move in soon after.  Then a cinema. Then a golf course. Then a shopping mall. Businessmen who would never have had an interest in the magic of the setting before (and still don't) see money to be made and plow investment into things like bowling alleys, fast food franchises, night clubs. 

At some point along this development path, whatever made this place special has faded. This place has become much like any place else. 

Part of what makes a place special is what's there.   Another part is what isn't.   Development is seductive.  We first journey to an undeveloped destination and marvel at its touched beauty. The place could be Pai, it could be Koh Tao in 1994, it could be your local beach 40 years ago. We love getting away from it all, but in the back of our minds we think this marvelous place would be just a little bit more marvelous if there was A or B or C here. Others have a similar idea and one eventually sets up A, B, and C.  A tranquil hidden getaway changes so slowly at first that, if we're there, we can't detect the change.

For four years, between 2007-11, I lived in Hua Hin, a cozy beach community along the Gulf of Thailand south of Bangkok which caters mainly to senior citizens.   King Rama VII built a summer palace in Hua Hin in the 1920's, and Hua Hin became Thailand's first beach resort. When I arrived in 2007, it was scarcely untouched. The downtown was already well developed and looks about the same today as it did then. It's the outskirts which have changed. Once bare tracts of land have been turned into new condo developments.  I used to live south of the town center in an area known as Takiap, which at that time felt like a different district.   Today, with development in full force throughout and outside Hua Hin, Takiap just blends into the rest of the town. The compound where we used to live, once next to a huge field where our cat roamed free, is now sandwiched between two high-end developments which sprung up after we left.  

The changes were already going on when we lived there.   When my laptop adapter fried in 2009, there was no place in town to buy an economical replacement. One had to go to Bangkok 3 hours away. A year later, a tech mall appeared on the top floor of the town's first shopping center and a branch of the ubiquitous Power Buy showed up soon thereafter. 

Seen in isolation, these 'improvements' are praised.   Taken together, they give a facelift to a community that may never have needed one.   When we lived in Hua Hin, it was thought to be in competition with another and much more famous Thai beach resort, Pattaya, also on the Gulf of Thailand but two hours east of Bangkok. The two places weren't really in competition. Hua Hin was quieter and more in the country. A short ten minute bike ride out of the center and you were in rural Thailand. Pattaya was already built up, full of restaurants, foreigners, bars, high end shopping malls, and sex venues. Each catered to different crowds. Now that I no longer live in Hua Hin, every time I go back I can see the new development, and it appears to be looking and feeling more like Pattaya all the time. In less than four years since our departure, the town now sports its own floating market and two water parks. 

Naturally, the type of people who weren't willing to live in such a "backwater" ten years ago now find the more developed Hua Hin palatable. Like Pai, I was told by old timers. Pai's case though was much different. Pai became famous primarily for what it didn't have.   This was its raison d'etre.   Developers see it differently. They think they can bottle the magic and spread it out further and further like a formula. That may work in a place like Las Vega$, which was built on illusions from its inception, but it doesn't work with a tiny town whose desirability was due to its very lack of development.

Unhindered development is like expanding a minor character in a TV show. The Fonz was a supporting player in the 1970's show Happy Days.   Michael J. Fox's Alex Keaton was supposed to be a supporting character in 1980's Family Ties; Meredith Baxter-Birney was meant to be the star. Because the audience liked these characters more than expected, the roles were expanded, and the show eventually revolved around them.   Plots became more farfetched as the expanded character's initially likeable characteristics became exaggerated.  

Development, too, notes what the audience likes and delivers more of it. Want a high end shopping mall? Want more chic wine bars? Want more attractions? Development is there to provide all that until a place winds up, like Fonzie and Alex Keaton, a caricature of what it originally was. 

There is probably some ideal amount of development, where a place is still able to retain its charm while possessing just the right amount of comforts, attractions, shops, and accommodation to make it comfortable enough.   However, no one can pinpoint this ideal time until it has long since passed. It's always that way. You can only gauge the peak after the decline has set in.

And in the context of most people's experience, it's not all that certain that overdevelopment means decline.   Only a minority of old timers who were able to see a place for what it was once value the less-is -more philosophy. The floods who come after major development has taken place have shown up because it's now firmly on the map, and it's only on the map because enough development has made the place "habitable" for the majority. 

But make no mistake whatsoever about development, whether you consider it a good or bad thing. Unless a locale has firm rules in place for development (no buildings beyond a certain size, no development beyond specified locations, development within certain parameters to make new buildings blend tastefully into the environment, proper and enforceable environmental standards), all unabated development eventually leads to crass overdevelopment.  Our economic system rewards those who step in to fill an unfilled niche. The purpose of development is to bring to one locale the comforts, amenities, and attractions available in all the others.  If taken to the extreme, it always has a homogenizing   effect. Most people call this "progress." 

With the world's expanding population and less of the world population living in poverty every year, a future of high rises on every beach and chain restaurants on every corner may not be so far away. 

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