The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel
I found paradise – 14 years later, it was ruined
As a new documentary on overtourism is released, Greg Dickinson talks to a traveller who found an unspoilt island, then witnessed its destruction
In 1993, Costas Christ was flicking through the New York Times Magazine and stopped on the centre spread. He couldn’t believe his eyes. He was looking at a photograph of a Thai island, filled with thousands of tourists celebrating the Full Moon Party. This couldn’t be real, he thought. It was Hat Rin Beach. Somboon and Chom’s beach. The beach that he had discovered 14 years earlier. His mind turned to the map he had drawn.
Costas’s story features in a new documentary, The Last Tourist, which reveals the shocking effects of overtourism. In the film, he recounts his experiences as a case study for the rampant growth of tourism in the latter half of the 20th century, but when you unravel the details, his story sounds like it could be the plot for a Hollywood film. Maybe it is.
It was 1979 when Costas, then a 20-something American backpacker, arrived on the Thai island of Koh Samui. He had tanned skin, long hair and a beard – the definition of a 1970s hippie backpacker.
He had been on the road for some time and was growing increasingly disillusioned by what he was seeing, which is what brought him to the supposedly untouched island of Koh Samui. But on arrival he found more hassle, more touts. He asked a boat’s captain where he was going next. When the captain said there was nothing for tourists on Koh Phangan, his next stop, Costas convinced him to take him there anyway.
When the boat arrived on Koh Phangan, Costas knew he had found what he was looking for. No hawkers, no hassle.
“I didn’t know where I was going, so I just started walking up the shoreline for hours,” Costas says. “It was almost sunset and I came around a corner and saw this beach. It was an image of paradise.”
There was a Thai couple living on the island, Somboon and Chom, who spoke English, having worked as contractors for the US military during the Vietnam War. Costas was the first western tourist they had ever seen on the island, and for two months he stayed with them, sleeping in a little bamboo chicken hut.
“At about 3.30 in the morning, Somboon would rattle the side and we’d go fishing. It was subsistence living. We’d go up into the hills and pick fruit. It was a snapshot in time,” says Costas.
But his time on the island was limited. Earlier in his travels, Costas had met a German couple in Bangkok, and after the girl broke up with her boyfriend, Costas had agreed to meet her on Koh Samui on a set date. This, of course, being in the days before email and mobile phones.
While catching up on their adventures, Costas excitedly drew a map of Koh Phangan, showing the girl the exact location of Hat Rin Beach. They even visited the island together, staying with Somboon and Chom, but after arriving back in Koh Samui, Costas called time on their relationship. Afterwards, Costas never saw her – or the map – again.
Two years later, in 1981, Costas revisited Koh Phangan and everything had changed. Somboon and Chom had been evicted from their home and boats were now arriving straight on Hat Rin Beach.
In the early days, free spirits visited the island to stay in stilted bungalows, and there would be a relatively low-key Full Moon Party each month. But it soon grew, and by the late 1980s Hat Rin was famed for its hedonistic monthly parties. Later, the Sanctuary, a wellness retreat away from the chaos, was founded elsewhere on the island. Today the island attracts around a mil
‘We’d wake at 3.30am to go fishing, or into the hills to pick fruit – it was a snapshot in time’
lion visitors per year, with the Full Moon Party attracting between 10,00020,000 people.
Costas’s story might sound familiar, given that it so closely mirrors the plotline of Alex Garland’s novel The Beach and the subsequent film adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Could this be a coincidence?
“What’s startling to me is how much the film parallels my own story, with certain embellishments,” says Costas.
There was nobody called Daffy who committed suicide in Bangkok, for example; there was no cannabis plantation on the island, and the film was actually shot in Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi Lay, not Koh Phangan. But the idea of a young, disillusioned backpacker befriending a European couple in southeast Asia, having a romance with the girl, discovering a remote island and drawing a map, which all led to the secret getting out? It is achingly familiar. The bones of that narrative – and indeed the founding of a free-spirited community on the island – are all rooted in true events.
Costas has never met Garland, and says it could well be a coincidence how closely the story of The Beach reflects his experiences.
After his backpacking adventures, Costas dedicated his life to enhancing the positive impacts of tourism. Today he is a responsible tourism expert, having helped to establish the UN Global Sustainable Tourism Council Criteria. Featuring in The Last Tourist is the latest chapter in his mission to shed light on the damage done by unchecked tourism, and how the industry can indeed be a force for good.
Before our conversation ends, Costas recalls a televised interview he saw with the mayor of Koh Phangan years after his visit. He was talking about Hat Rin Beach, Somboon and Chom’s beach, and the words stayed with Costas: “We have destroyed this, and it’s too late for us,” said the mayor. “But maybe our story will help somewhere else. Another beach, somewhere.”