Within our first week of St Andrews, like all wide-eyed, overzealous freshers with too much time on our hands, we made our way to the interminable two-mile strip of beach that is West Sands. As we huddled like penguins from the wind, gazing upon the dark rolling clouds, and the distant tankers and rigs on the horizon, we saw an inexplicable brute beauty in the scene. However, as if on cue, the capricious sky split open and shattered our romanticised image of St Andrews. While we rushed back through the curtain of rain that fell between us and our halls, we reached a consensus: As wonderful as they are, we did not come here for the beaches.
The town of St Andrews, perched on its rocky outcrop at war with the sea, will for many of us only be a small fragment of our lives. And when you emerge into reality, feeling like a rhino in a petting zoo, you might look outwards from the bubble and see a world asking to be explored. Then you watch the cult film The Beach (2000), where a group of young adrift travellers settle on a remote island in the Gulf of Thailand, relishing in their beautiful setting to the ambient beat of “Porcelain” by electronica artist Moby. But don’t pack your bag or book your flight yet, because the beautiful Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi Leh island has been closed indefinitely by Thai authorities, and we are the reason why.
The bay is composed of a long crescent of sand and crystal blue water, flanked by tall overhanging cliffs, and up until June this year, packed with the 5,000 tourists and 200 boats it received every day. A constant struggle for any free patch of sand, devoid of all serenity. Closing the beach was not an easy decision for Thai Authorities due to the 400 billion baht (£9.5m) a year that it drew in. However, pressure from conservationists mounted, and after an original four-month tourist ban from June to September, Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant conservation stated the bay would remain closed indefinitely. The move was prompted by marine biologist Thon Thamrongnawasawat who documented the extent of tourist crowding. The result of mass tourism has been devastating to the marine ecosystem with 80 per cent of coral, essential for supporting a myriad of aquatic life, destroyed by a polluted mix of sun cream and other substances, as well as dropped anchors and the flippers of snorkelers. According to Songtam Suksawang’s work, the beach “was completely destroyed, along with the plants which covered it.” With coral growing by a mere 5-25mm a year, it quickly became clear that four months would not be enough time to fulfil the Hippocratic notion of Vis medicatrix naturae, that nature can heal itself.
The story of Maya Bay transcends Asia and the rest of the world. Indicative of the cultural battle between the environment and profit, Boracay is land in the Philippines suffered a similarly dramatic fate with the island branded a ‘cesspool’ by president Duterte after unregulated tourism and the purposeful blind eye of local authorities devastated the area which drew in 56 billion pesos a year. With a healthy bribe to the correct official, anyone could build the beach hut or expand their complex as they desired. Only after a mass coral die off in 2015 and frequent algal blooms did things change. As of 26 October, the six-month closure of the island ended where progress was made to development agro-tourism; 400 hotels and restaurants were closed for violating environmental laws causing a loss of 36,000 jobs, moreover legal complaints were filed against 17 executive officials for their roles in flouting regulations that prevent illegal development. Despite it appearing that the environment has won out to tourism, it has been commented that the true scale of destruction would take over 60 years to recover from.
The scourge of these places is use the tourist, wanderer, and vagabond. Living to live beyond the dilemma of tourism, our desire for the untouched is impacting the world. The pristine becomes sullied by our presence. When an untouched place is found, it quickly becomes shared and geotagged, drawing in crowds, such as the Kaaterskill Falls in New York state, where since 1992 at least eight people have fallen to the deaths, the last four confirmed to be people taking or posing for pictures. With the exception of many conflict zones, though some tourists do appear to find an allure in the extreme, most places around the world struggle not to sacrifice environment and culture in the interest of profit. In the world, one in every ten people work in tourism related jobs worldwide, its importance cannot be denied, but the associated issues of cultural homogenisation and dissatisfaction among locals arise in almost all places.
Ultimately, St Andrews is not a mass tourism magnet. It is not Maya Bay, nor Venice or Dubrovnik, and certainly not Barcelona, where the tyres of rental buses and tour buses have been slashed. Yet the tourism turnover in the town is £110 million (2016 statistic), almost one third of tourism across Fife making up one in five jobs in St Andrews. When walking round town there is no shortage of baseball cap wearing, Rick Steves and lonely planet wielding tourists bemused by our ritualistic side stepping of the PH. But how well can St Andrews handle this? Many of us have experienced the overpriced pain that is travelling from Leuchars, likewise parking is often at a premium with North Street last year holding the acclaim of the most parking ticketed street in Fife with South Street second on the list. One study also suggests that more than 20 coach loads of tourists pour into town each day over the summer. So how has this crisis decimated the St Andrews environment and community? It hasn’t, instead the town thrives off it. Tourists adore St Andrews, VisitScotland found that on average golf visitors rated their experience of St Andrews at 8.93 out of 10. But how do these tourists impact the town? The Links Trust employs 300 permanent and part time staff with more employe during tournaments such as the Dunhill Cup and during The Open Championship, which in 2015 delivered £140 million to the Scottish economy, the largest amount ever achieved at a golf event in the UK or Ireland. Unfortunately, there is often congestion when these events occur, and criticism does arise at the course being orientated to non-residents, as seen in the reduction of reserved tee times for residents in favour of guaranteed times for commercial partners. However, unlike the exclusive clubs of Florida and California, residents still have access to the course for a relatively affordable price.
Our beaches also fare well. Though the old course is an inherently unnatural feature, the links design integrates natural landscaping which allows for a range of native flora and fauna to survive, on the courses and adjoining estuary over 300 species have been identified.
For West Sands itself, the Links Trust helps stabilise the sand dunes preserving the beach. The beach is also a natural flood protection, the damage to the dune system after a 2010 storm surge prompted a large restoration project reprofiling the dune with tens of thousands of tons of sand redistributed, marram grass planted, and access routes and sand fencing installed. Regular volunteer litter picking also occurs. Both East and West Sands are designated bathing beaches with the water quality monitored with little recognised risk of pollution with the exception of some agricultural run-off; their cleanliness is recognised in their green coast awards. The beaches of St Andrews are well preserved as they themselves are a feature of the town. From the Scores you can admire the famous strip of sand that played such an iconic cinematic role in Chariots of Fire, while walking in you can appreciate the St Andrews skyline which rivals many. Castle Sands is an often-overlooked retreat with its sheltered location and dramatic out stretched rocks and East Sands offers a view of the cathedral and pier.
The small-town coffee shop and bar culture that makes St Andrews such a special student town is part of the tourist appeal, something that the area successfully embraces and preserves this through an ethos of sustainability. As much as members of Sallies like to complain about the strange congregations of people taking photos and videos hoping to catch a shot of Will or Kate’s room, and as annoying as they are when they block up the pavement or take your favourite corner seat at a bar or pub, tourists support this town. Remember that, as much as you try, when you’re on your travels you may be that person that you yourself grumble about. But without them the town would not be the same. And once they have driven you mad, head down to your favourite windswept beach and take in the.