There's a lot to be said for the unsaid. We all know that there's more going on behind any particular picture or story, but we can never really know what unless we're there to experience it ourselves. Since that's not exactly possible, the best I can do is try and spell it out.
I spent three months island-hopping around the South Pacific laying on beautiful beaches, swimming in crystal clear water, and drinking from fresh coconuts on a daily basis. Every island I visited provided all that and more; plentiful tropical luxuries just like all the brochures promise. These are the things I showcased in my photographs because those are the reasons I went to the islands. But these islands weren't built by travel companies to draw in and conform to tourists. Each of these tiny island nations is first and foremost home to diverse cultures, real people, and substantial environmental, social, political, and economic concerns.
It's true that they boast white-sand beaches, warm waters, and plenty of coconuts but everyone already knows that, so let's talk about the rest.
This is what doesn't make it on the postcards:
Stray dogs missing limbs and covered in fleas and wounds, all pregnant or nursing or fathering new pups destined for the streets.
Plastic and metal and rubber and styrofoam. Mountains of it on the streets, the farms, the forests, the beaches, the reefs.
People so destitute that things like animal welfare and environmental concerns aren't even on the radar.
Taxi drivers and market vendors and trinket salesmen promoting their products at a 400% increase with a smile on their face, a special price for palagi.
Tiny impoverished airports that led to more stress than I've ever had in my life.
High-end resorts owned and operated by ex-pats because the locals are "too lazy to work."
Men whistling and hissing and kissing after you, all vying for your attention, quick to offer their services as a tour guide or an insight into local customs, but only for the women.
Locals stalking you on the beaches demanding made-up entrance fees and not allowing you to leave without payment.
Being unable to blend into the background - as the only white-person around during the off-season, Tourist was painted in neon above my head.
Producing probably the largest carbon footprint of my life with ten flights, plastic-wrapped foods, single-use straws and utensils that I asked not to receive but got anyways.
The lack of safe drinking water and limited access to proper nutrients and the resulting digestive issues.
The five countries I visited were dramatically different in culture and environment and they weren't equally afflicted with these things, but they shared enough of them that they're worth mentioning.
There was so much to love about the islands and their people, but they were far from what I would call paradise and it's ignorant and irresponsible for them to be promoted as such.
The romance of travel, particularly travel to tropical regions, tends to smudge over the reality of those places. The islands, for all their beaches and waters and coconuts, are developing nations with real people living there and real cancers clinging to their economies and cultures and environments.
Tourism can help just as easily as it can hurt. It can support the economy but often at the price of the environment, or maybe it can help the environment at the cost of the culture, and if a visitor stays at a resort and rarely strays from its boundaries, it may only support the ex-pat who runs it at the detriment to all three.
Fortunately, sustainable tourism is possible no matter where you visit. Do a little research and commit to certain practices. It will never be perfect, but every little bit helps. (Visit Sustainable Tourism to learn more)
With all of that said, I'd like to say just a bit more.
It's not black and white. There's more good than bad and the average stuff outweighs them both. No one would travel if that weren't true at least most of the time. During those three months, I met many extremely kind and generous islanders and ex-pats who were doing everything in their capacity to empower local communities. I witnessed and participated in numerous environmental and cultural projects run by locals that will undoubtedly change the islands for the better. I had otherworldly experiences I'll likely never get to experience again and drank from so, so many coconuts (Tonga has the best).
I'm in no hurry to go back, but I am so, so glad I went. Travel shouldn't always be about purely positive things. It's about learning. It's about seeing what's real and what's imagined. It's about forming your own picture of the world as you experience it.
This isn't a call to stay away from the islands or even a warning about what you'll see if you do go, it's merely a reminder that nothing is all sunshine and rainbows, even on tropical islands that experience plenty of both.
Top Photo: Uoleva, Kingdom of Tonga
Lower Photo: Aunt Jenny & Jeremiah from the Rongdal School Project showing off homemade 'island dresses' on Efate, Vanuatu