27 February 2018

East goes South

15 years it has been since my last proper beach vacation. Then, as now, it took me to Asia. In fact, the beaches in question are a mere 250km apart, although on opposite sides of the Thai / Malaysian border.

While not much has changed for me - a few good books and a deck chair keep me merry for a few days, then I get bored - the tourism market around me certainly isn't the same anymore.

In 2003, I found myself in a four star resort in Thailand, run my Caucasians for an entirely western clientele. We fit right in with the German families, Scandinavian sunseekers, British lobsters and French hippies on their way to the full moon parties. Courtesy of cheap long-haul flights, Asia was no longer an unaffordable, exotic dream destination, but the four season-proof alternative to old European beach playgrounds in Ibiza, Cyprus and the Adriatic Sea.

In 2018, popping my head up in a Malaysian swimming pool and looking at the loungers around it, I stared into mainly Asian faces. The Chinese had arrived in force, edging out the quieter Korean contingent. The Lebanese were easily identified as the ones calling the pool boys habibi, and the Saudis as the guys in shorts and flip-flops holing hands with the gals under a Niqaab. The many local Malay guests directed torrents of instructions in Bahasa Malysia at waiters and probably got far spicier curries than everybody else in return. The Singaporeans sing-sung their English (la!) in designer swimwear. Europeans were few and far in between, and nary an Ozzie or a Yank was to be found.

Clearly, Asia has arrived at its beaches. And while my favorite newspaper has written about the emerging Asian middle class for years now, this was for me the most tangible manifestation to date of that economic shift.

Far from complaining, I noted the change in guest mix with content. Not only does it represent a happy turn in the fortunes of the newly affluent, it also makes this pale-skinned guest feel less like a member of a colonial occupation force. On a more practical level, more Asians translated into better and more varied food offerings at the resort, while fewer Germans meant I didn't have to go reserve a beach chair at the crack of dawn. Speaking of which, the shade-seeking Asians seemed more concerned about their parasols than the sun anyways. And instead of tacky Europop and teutonic oompah-oompah, they listened to K-Pop, where the lyrics blissfully pass me by.

Resort management, also in local hands these days, does a good job at catering to the needs of their new clientele. There were many special deals, decorations and even little red packets given out for Chinese New Year. Wifi coverage was fast, free, unlimited and extended to the farthest reaches of the property. The resort map even suggested the ideal spots for Instagram-worthy selfies. And they were used extensively.

I looked on bemused, and perhaps a bit sad, as old and young guests alike missed out on the gorgeous sunset while they stared at their screens and video-chatted with the folks back in Tianjin and Wuhan (no time difference to deal with!). But I was glad that they were there, for they made this Malaysian resort live up to the slogan the country's tourism board has coined years ago :Truly Asia.

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