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Heide Kerber Title What you (don't) want to see: Encountering waste-tourism relations on the Vietnamese Island Phy Quoc

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10:00 AM, Tuesday 22 Jun 2021 (30 minutes)
What you (don't) want to see: Encountering waste-tourism relations on the Vietnamese Island Phy Quoc


Heide Kerber

Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam’s tourism magnet, struggles with overtourism. Above all, the island’s image of natural beauty begins to fade as the tide of waste pollution rises. The island’s waste governance is weak; the waste infrastructure ill equipped; waste items lining roadsides and covering popular bathing beaches become a nuisance. As a Vietnamese newspaper illustratively titles “Phu Quoc Island [is] drowing in rubbish” (Vietnamnet 2017), pointing towards crucial social-ecological challenges contradicting “Phu Quoc’s bright future” as a special economic zone for tourism (VEN 2018).

Along these lines, I work from the premise that “garbage matters” (Moore 2012) and that “garbage is a geographical phenomenon” (Davis 2008; Millington & Lawhon 2019) as materials relocate and rematerialize in space. Its presence or absence marks spaces in particular ways, creating attractive or repellent places, as wasted items have the troublesome capacity to affect how a place smells, feels or is experienced (Arnall & Kothari 2020:12). Yet, negative impressions contradict Phu Quoc’s destination management that promotes the island as a ‘sun, sand and sea’ tourism paradise, selling the image ofpristine tropical island landscapes. Lew (2017) describes tourism destination marketing as a place-making practices intended to create authenticity, images and imaginative geographies of places.

Drawing on Goffman’s theatre metaphor, I explore waste-tourism relations as an ongoing making of front- and backstage places (Goffman reprint 2008). This making requires manipulation and management to create a frontage that fulfils the image or the enjoyment of particular environmental features tourists seeking (Kothari & Arnall 2017; Saarinen & Wall-Reinius 2019). Thus, Phu Quoc’s decision-makers in charge of day-to-day waste governance and mainly large, often international, run resorts constantly create both materially and symbolically ‘clean’ places. Yet, paradise frontage makes backstage places necessary to accumulate or store discharged items. This trajectory increasingly leads to a tangible, socio-spatial fragmentation of the island. As a tourist aptly summarizes:“So, there is a strong contrast between the touristic parts and the real part. So, the real part is a shithole and the touristic part is, as an exception, tidy” (TGER1804). Indeed, collection services cover the island’s major settlements and tourist hotpots, but are widely lacking in rural areas.A similar segregation describe López-López et al.(2006) for tourist places in Mexico. Along these lines, studies on political ecology of waste in the global South (Cornea et al. 2017; Baabereyir et al. 2012; Millington & Lawhon 2019) grasp such a segregation as an unequal distribution of the waste burden. On Phu Quoc, this is further reinforced by locating new waste infrastructures close to villages or residential areas that have not yet been developed for tourism. Albeit, residents increasingly question backstage arrangements, demanding negotiations with decision makers.Moreover, the sale of land along the coastline and hence the expansion of the frontstage places fosters both an exclusion of local people from places of recreation and diminish access to important marine resources such as easily accessible fishing grounds. This raises the question for whom the island will provide place for well-being in future.

That said localauthorities and many residents endorse tourism, rather than complaining of or even seeing its drawbacks (Tuöi tré News 2021). It is widely not contested that non place-based actors, like the central government and two national conglomerates, determine the future of the island. Though evidently ignoring the fact that large-scale tourism, or overtourism in case of Phu Quoc, has proven disastrous for local social-ecological environments (Nepal & Saarinen 2016; Gössling 2003). Concurrently, of course, there are also some critical voices. Though even if lines of conflict are increasingly emerging, they are, so far, mainly implicitly recognizable. Possibly because of hierarchy, short-sighted business interests, corruption, limited freedom of speech, lacking anticipation of upcoming drawbacks or simply lacking interest.

My contribution takes waste pollution as an exemplary vantage point to explore two-edged place-making practices in and ambivalent perceptions towards overtourism. I argue that place-making practices, aiming to render waste invisible, lead to an increasing fragmentation of the island into ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ spaces. This eventually creates patterns of inequality in (over)tourism settings, a consequence widely overlooked on Phu Quoc. Using Goffman’s theatre metaphor as the pivotal point for our analysis, works within geographical waste (governance), political ecology of waste and tourism and social-ecological transformation enrich the analytical frame. The results are based on qualitative empirical data acquired in two field visits in 2017 and 2018.


Arnall, A. & Kothari, U. (2020). Becoming an island: making connections and places through waste mobilities. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

Baabereyir, A., Jewitt, S., & O'Hara, S. (2012).Dumping on the Poor: The Ecological Distribution of Accra's Solid-Waste Burden.Environment and Planning a: Economy and Space, 44, 297–314.

Cornea, N., Véron, R., & Zimmer, A. (2017).Clean city politics: An urban political ecology of solid waste in West Bengal, India. Environment and Planning a, 49, 728–744.

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López-López, Á., Cukier, J., & Sánchez-Crispín, Á. (2006).Segregation of Tourist Space in Los Cabos, Mexico.Tourism Geographies, 8, 359–379.

Millington, N., & Lawhon, M. (2019). Geographies of waste: Conceptual vectors from the Global South.Progress in Human Geography, 43, 1044–1063.

Moore, S. A. (2012). Garbage matters.Progress in Human Geography, 36, 780–799.

Nepal, S. K., & Saarinen, J. (Eds.) (2016).Routledge studies in political ecology. Political Ecology and Tourism. Abingdon, Oxon, New York: Routledge.

Saarinen, J., & Wall-Reinius, S. (2019).Enclaves in tourism: producing and governing exclusive spaces for tourism.Tourism Geographies, 21, 739–748.

Tuöi tré News (2021). Vietnam’s first-ever ‘sleepless city’ officially opens on Phu Quoc Island. 22.04.2021.

Ven (2018). Phu Quoc’s bright future as a special economic zone. 20.02.2018

Vietnamnet (2017). Phu Quoc Island drowing in rubbish. 20.10.2017

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