(Re)Creating Paradise: The Post-Tsunami Visual Economy of Thailand’s Phi Phi Islands
A utopian dreamscape of adventure and pleasure on white sand beaches dotted with leaning palm trees, turquoise waters teeming with brilliant coral, towering limestone cliffs, and lush tropical canopy as far as the eye can see: The Phi Phi Islands in southern Thailand represent just such a landscape, promising a paradise created, represented, and visually maintained by culture industries such as western popular cinema as well as global tourist and travel organizations.
On the morning of December 26, 2004, the Phi Phi Islands bore the brunt of the Sumatran tsunami as it careened through the Indian Ocean. On Phi Phi Don, the more densely populated of the two islands, loss of life and property was staggering. Yet thanks to the efforts of a transient volunteer labor force composed primarily of young western tourists, Phi Phi Don was rebuilt in a matter of months. The swift and total recovery of the islands and their reintegration back into the global tourist industry reveals the pervasiveness of a visual economy of tourism, which can transform spaces and landscapes¾ even people and natural disasters¾into viable commodities. This visual economy strategically mediates the gaze of the tourist, and it can rapidly alter the social structure of local populations: in some cases drastically improving quality of life, in others resulting in profound cultural or ecological degradation.
This study addresses complex issues of eco- and sustainable tourism as well as the form and function of memorial spaces in tourist landscapes. It also demonstrates the potential for more politically correct, ecologically and culturally responsible forms of tourism to alter visual landscapes and local populations in manners contrary to the well-intentioned ideals of those who pursue such forms of tourism. Drawing upon my own experiences as a “voluntourist” and journalist working throughout the tourist-dense Andaman coastal region of Thailand in the wake of the tsunami, my visual study illuminates the complex forces at work in the creation and re-creation of paradises such as the Phi Phi Islands—forces often beyond the knowledge and control of the visitor as well as the visited.