Live from the trans-global Beach Nation

Leo's new movie may be fiction, but its portrayal of a crowded travel world is based in fact. Our correspondent reports -- from the unlikeliest of places -- on just what is happening.

Published February 11, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

American moviegoers now have a chance to see Leonardo DiCaprio -- in his first major film role since "Titanic" -- portray a Thailand-bound backpacker in the movie adaptation of Alex Garland's 1997 novel, "The Beach."

In honor of this cinematic occasion, I have traveled across the globe to a beach that epitomizes what, over the course of the movie, Leo's Richard character grows to despise. This particular beach has long enjoyed a reputation as a laid-back stop-off for weary backpackers and drug-addled hipsters. Recently, however, it has started to show growing pains, as a unified, high-turnover vision of Western leisure has begun to take over.

Admittedly, there is still plenty of charm to this place. In the morning, travelers can sit in the sun and stretch a $1 breakfast into a blissful three-hour idle while seabirds soar over the bay. At night, when brownouts don't kill the local power supply, the beach-side palm trees glow with Christmas lights as travelers chat and sip tea around restaurant bonfires. During the day, these travelers occupy themselves with snorkeling, diving, wilderness trekking, card games, warm beer, marijuana or simply staring off into space along the warm waterfront. In the shadows, an occasional stray cat flicks its tail and languorously squeezes its eyes shut. Here, a reed hut near the beach rents for about $2; a slightly nicer accommodation with a bathroom starts at about $5. Food is cheap, facilities are adequate, drugs are plentiful and days are unstructured.

There is, however, a vaguely artificial air in this beach mecca. The natives
here occupy the fringes -- driving minivans, serving tea, selling trinkets.
Many of them are not native to this place at all, but are hustlers and
entrepreneurs who've come from the big city to try their luck. Restaurants
here don't play native tunes, opting instead for the tried-and-true Western
stylings of Bob Marley, Pink Floyd, Ice Cube and Portishead. Storefront
markets offer henna tattoos, Marlboros, hair-braiding, bottled water,
snorkel rental and international phone calls. At the far fringes of the
beachfront, naked concrete and rebar structures attest to the impending
arrival of newer and nicer resort hotels. Thirty-seven dive shops line the
beachfront here -- a four-fold increase from 1996. Fifty-five restaurants
crowd the main road, over twice as many as in 1997. And while the 1999
Lonely Planet guide reports that this town boasts just two Internet cafes,
I've counted nine.

This place I describe is not on Phi Phi Island, set of "The Beach," nor is it
on Koh Samui or Koh Phangan in Thailand. This is not the land of jungles,
kick-boxing or banana pancakes. I'm not even in Southeast Asia. Rather, I
am 4,500 miles away from Thailand -- in the land of deserts, Bedouins and
Moses: Today, in the hopes of better understanding "The Beach," I have come to a southern Sinai Egyptian beach town on the Gulf of Aquaba, called Dahab.

My presence here has been more significant than it might seem in the final days before Leo again hits the big screen. This is because, in a multitude of
ways, the story of Dahab runs parallel to the story of "The Beach:" It is
the story of how an obscure beach "paradise" became a very crowded place.

This is also the story of an ever-changing, increasingly wealthy world that
is brimming with human beings -- 1.6 billion of whom are projected to spend
$2 trillion traveling away from their homes this year.

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In the introduction to a 1999 book called "The Tourist City," Dennis R. Judd
and Susan S. Fainstein write that, "the globalization of mass tourism leads
to an odd paradox. Whereas the appeal of tourism is the opportunity to see
something different, cities that are remade to attract tourists are more and
more alike."

Although the authors were referring to cities such as Atlanta and Baltimore,
their thesis could just as easily be applied to international backpacker
backwaters like Dahab in Egypt, Koh Samui in Thailand or any number of
other cut-rate beachfront Shangri-Las in places like Indonesia, Costa Rica
or Madagascar. These places, which have more in common with each other than
with their home cultures, have come to constitute what might be called a
trans-global Beach Nation -- a loosely-conglomerated free-market republic
founded solely on its capacity to cater to the wants and needs of young
budget travelers from industrialized nations.

The inevitable problem with the Beach Nation, of course, is that, through the
very act of creating an infrastructure catering to these wants and needs, this place tends to mutate into a caricature of itself: A
crowded, self-referencing economic zone that could just as well be located
in a heated Milwaukee convention center. Or, to put it another way:
Foreign places invariably lose their foreignness as they adapt themselves to

Leo fans who catch the opening of "The Beach" this weekend will see a dark
cinematic interpretation of what happens when a select group of foreigners
in Thailand tries to reverse this trend by keeping their foreign place a

Since the corporeal world is somewhat lacking in plot points and rising action, however, I have come to Egypt to investigate backpacker trends on a more realistic level. As a birthplace of "exotic" mass-tourism (Thomas Cook began giving Nile river cruises here in the 1860s), Egypt has long been adapting its heritage and its image to the tourist market. The Sinai peninsula, on the other hand -- which only recently came out of touristic obscurity after years of isolation and war -- provides a vivid, relatively uncomplicated example of how the Beach Nation evolves.

One hundred years ago, when Western tourists began flocking to Egypt's ancient Pharaonic sites (an 1898 postcard referred to Cairo as "a winter suburb of London"), the Sinai was a draw only for devout Christians making the dangerous pilgrimage to Mount Sinai. When a British army officer named R.A. Bagnold became the first person to drive a car to the tip of the Sinai in 1927, he reported that the place featured little more than empty desert and a few wandering Bedouin.

To a large extent, the Sinai remained that way for the next 40 years, until Israel wrested the territory from Egypt during 1967's Six Day War. It was under the Israeli occupation that transportation and housing infrastructure first arrived in the Sinai on a significant scale. Thus, unlike the islands of Thailand (whose travel origins are invariably muddled with dubious, competing tales of Ur-hippies who supposedly waded ashore in the '50s or '60s), the beach evolution of Dahab is fairly clear-cut.

Dahab (which is the Arabic word for "gold") is located on the southeastern coast of the Sinai, and shares a reef-rich stretch of the Gulf of Aquaba with a town called Sharm el-Sheikh. After the Israelis left in 1982, Sharm el-Sheikh rapidly transformed into a full-fledged resort town, complete with golf courses, casinos and discos. Sharm el-Sheikh's population increased eight-fold during the 1990s, and its various resorts stretched their way across 5 miles of shoreline.

This left Dahab (which, 50 miles to the north, was a bit more isolated and had a less-impressive reef ) to thrive as a sleepy, inexpensive alternative to Sharm el-Sheikh. Friendly Bedouin provided ready companionship and cheap marijuana, and a few claptrap facilities were put together to meet the needs of wanderers passing through. Thus, much like Koh Samui and Phi Phi Island came to be defined as an alternative to Thailand tourist magnets like Pattaya and Phuket, Dahab found its identity as a laid-back anti-resort.

Today, I walk my way past the restaurants and hotels of Dahab Bay to Assalah, a Bedouin village which once sat a bit north of the tourist zone. These days, Assalah still retains its Bedouin character, even as tourist guest houses and dive shops crowd both its southern and northern boundaries. Camels here are still tethered to rough cinderblock homes, goats still wander the streets and naked Bedouin children still frolic in the deep-blue gulf waters. The landscape is very striking and severe: Dry desert basins, jagged brown mountains, long black shadows.

This Bedouin village was once the nucleus that sustained the first significant wave of international travelers to grace these shores in the 1980s. Back then, the Bedouin mixed with small numbers of Bohemian Israelis and Western vagabonds in what was little more than a ragtag colony of beach huts, grotty restaurants and aluminum folding chairs. There were no international phone booths, no scuba diving schools and no electricity. Camel treks into the desert were arranged face-to-face -- not through travel agencies -- and pizza was not on restaurant menus. Mountain Bedouins kept the community in an abundant supply of marijuana, and -- when there was a demand -- acid, speed and heroin. When a surplus of travelers arrived, people slept in restaurants or on the beach. Dahab had all the aesthetic appeal of a squatter's camp, but a lazy charm and a determined party spirit prevailed.

Over time, things changed: New Egyptians moved in alongside the Bedouins, new businesses opened up, new travelers arrived. Conservationists declared the waters around the Sinai to be one of the "Seven Underwater Wonders of the World," and scores of divers made their way north to Dahab's reefs. On top of this, the Cold War ended, Western prosperity grew and legions of new budget travelers headed for the less-expensive parts of the world. As the Middle Eastern backpacker circuit grew in popularity, the Sinai became an overland way station between Egypt, Israel, Jordan and (later) Syria. Laid-back Dahab turned into a kind of postmodern frontier outpost, where weary travelers could put aside their itineraries for a few weeks and chill out.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly when Dahab mainstreamed to the point where it became an appendage of the Beach Nation. Old-timers I've talked to -- Egyptians and Westerners alike -- say things really began to change here around 1995 or 1996. Dive shops organized and flourished, new hotels and "beach camps" were built and restaurateurs from one end of the bay to the other bought bigger speakers after discovering the bewitching power of the Bob Marley "Legend" CD. Bedouins found themselves increasingly outnumbered by Cairenes, and financial bottom lines began to be more of a priority.

If any one event sealed Dahab's entry into the Beach Nation, however, it was the 1997 massacre of 58 tourists by Islamic extremists at Queen Hatshepsut's temple in Upper Egypt. The Egyptian tourist authority immediately touted the Sinai as a safe alternative to the Nile Valley, European travel agents sold package trips to the Red Sea region without ever mentioning the word "Egypt" and many foreign travelers saw their first glimpse of the country at the brand-new Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport. Resort towns like Sharm el-Sheikh, Hurghada and Nuweiba saw the bulk of the new traffic, but the overflow splashed much of the younger crowd into Dahab. In adapting to needs and demands of the new visitors, the once-unassuming Bedouin beach village rapidly completed its transition into a tourist colony.

Unlike the inhabitants of Leonardo DiCaprio's cinematic beach community -- who react to change (and the threat of change) with secrecy, denial and violence -- Dahab's beach veterans seem to be taking the new changes and new company with a kind of wistful fatalism. Achmed, the proprietor of my $5 hotel -- who first came to Dahab 12 years ago -- summed it up for me the best of anyone.

"Dahab means 'gold' in Arabic," he said, "but now we call this place 'silver.' It's still good, but it's not what it used to be."

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Late in the screenplay version of "The Beach," Leo's Richard character briefly leaves his secluded island to buy supplies from a town on Ko Phangan. His reaction to the crowded Beach Nation atmosphere there is unambiguous: "This was why we kept the secret," he says in a voiceover. "If these assholes ever found out about our island, they'd take just one night to spoil it forever."

Richard's assumption -- that the Beach Nation threatens his notion of paradise -- is both understandable and unfair. Understandable because it's natural to bemoan the encroachment of the Beach Nation into once-pristine places. Unfair because the Beach Nation -- in ghettoizing the inevitable crush of Western travelers -- performs a protective function. Not only do such travel ghettos siphon the bulk of tourists into a relatively small area (thus keeping a wealth of other regions native and pristine), but the Beach Nation also helps local governments address the importance of formal conservation efforts. As with Thailand, it is no coincidence that the bulk of Egypt's national parks and reserves are being developed in high-traffic tourist areas.

Beyond protection, however, the Beach Nation -- crowded as it may be -- still does a pretty good job of providing its visitors with a good time. Most travelers, even backpackers, don't require an island paradise all to their own. Part of the charm of budget travel is that it blurs the line between being a king and being a bum. Exclusivity notwithstanding, sitting and doing nothing on a warm beach in the Sinai (or Thailand, or Belize, or Bali ...) with a return ticket and a carefully managed wad of spending cash will probably always be a popular youth pastime. And, like Ko Samui, Dahab will no doubt retain its reputation as a place where travelers come for a two-day visit and end up staying for five weeks.

It's also important to remember that the Beach Nation (and its imperialist instinct) is governed not by the juggernaut of inevitability, but by the cold demands of the free market. Those who don't mind giving up basic comforts (a very small percentage, in practice) will continue to have their anonymous adventures and, from time to time, briefly discover places that resemble paradise. On the other hand, those who insist on idle comfort -- be it cheap marijuana at the Beach Nation or 24-hour room service at the Beach Hilton -- will have to learn to deal with all the new company.

In the end, any assessment of leisure travel has to come to terms with our fanciful notions of what "paradise" is in the first place. Until fairly recently, paradise was considered to be Eden, an earthly heaven with four rivers flowing from its borders. At the outset of the exploration era, in fact, mapmakers placed Eden in the uncharted corners of Asia or sub-Saharan Africa. Later, adventurers and scholars (Voltaire among them) surmised Eden was in the New World. These days, with the world mapped and explored many times over, we are still looking for Eden in the Other -- other climes, other times, other states of mind.

The problem with this is that, when we try to plant our flag in the Other, we find that what seemed like Eden tends to mimic home. And the more it resembles home, the less it resembles Eden. It's a vicious cycle, but we can't seem to get over it.

And that, of course, is what gives "The Beach" its drama -- because anyone who's paged through Genesis will know that the real fun starts not with the Edenic bliss, but the desire to control it.

By Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts' Vagabonding column appears every other Tuesday in Salon Travel. For more columns by Potts, visit his column archive.

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