NIKKI SMITH on Navigating the environmental impact in destination thrillers

Written by Nikki Smith


Nikki SmithDestination thrillers have been around for many years, but their popularity seems to have really exploded recently. This is perhaps partly due to a reaction against the impossibility of travel during the covid pandemic, and also perhaps a desire to escape from the realities of a turbulent political landscape and the current cost-of-living crisis – but whatever the reason, these thrillers are now very much a sub-genre in their own right.


 Who wouldn’t want to be transported to an idyllic luxury location, often with gorgeous beaches, clear blue skies and plenty of sunshine? The appeal of exploring the darker side of dubious characters against a stunning backdrop is easy to understand, and novels in this genre are often dismissed as very commercial easy reads that are entertaining but don’t tackle serious themes. It is all too easy when picking up a destination thriller to forget about the data on climate change – we have a narrowing window of time to prevent global warming and damage to the environment – the effects of which are only exacerbated by travelling to far flung places which is often what readers see represented in these books.


My latest destination thriller, The Guests, is set in the Maldives. One hundred and sixty-four resort islands located in a place that many would regard as paradise with crystal clear blue seas and white sand – made of coral rather than quartz, unlike 95% of the rest of the world’s beaches, hence their fine white powder consistency.  


Whilst researching the book, behind the idyllic paradise that the majority of tourists see when they visit, or in photos and videos online, I came across the staggering statistic that 280,000 plastic bottles are discarded in the capital of the country, Malé, every single day (this was in 2019). Poorly managed plastic waste threatens the marine ecosystem and economy of the Maldives with 860 metric tons of waste (mostly plastic) generated each day. In a country that is 99% water, landfill is not an option and until very recently all the rubbish from resort and local islands was taken and dumped on an island called Thilafushi where it was set alight, belching toxic fumes into the atmosphere. Thankfully, this situation has recently improved; many resort islands have now introduced recycling and there is a pledge to make the islands single-use plastic free in the near future.  


Many of the six thousand tourists who arrive in the Maldives each day (tourist numbers in 2023 were up 15% on 2022 figures and the same jump is expected in 2024) are unaware of the extent of environmental damage that climate change is causing, and how, usually unwittingly, they are contributing to that damage. Tourism is the largest economic industry in the Maldives and employs a huge number of people, so it is vital for the country that it continues. However, there are things tourists need to be aware of so they can limit the impact they have – such as offsetting their carbon footprint, taking their rubbish home with them, or wearing suncream that doesn’t damage the coral reefs. 


I want to write books that will primarily entertain readers, but also ones that embrace contemporary, urgent themes – in this case the ecological and environmental concerns that arise from the impact of tourism. Although climate thrillers (or Cli-Fi as it’s now called) do this already in books such as This Fragile Earth by Susanna Wise, The End We Start From by Megan Hunter or One by Eve Smith, commercial fiction tends to avoid this topic. I hope by introducing themes people might not otherwise engage with as the backdrop to a thriller, they naturally become part of the story and it doesn’t feel in any way like an agenda. 


I don’t believe climate change is something that is highlighted enough in the entertainment industry as a whole. Anna Jane Joyner, the founder and director of ‘Good Energyfeels the same way. She created a Playbook for Screenwriting in the Age of Climate Change because she felt that climate change wasn’t shown enough on screen. She said, “In real life, climate change is all around us, so if your story takes place today or in the near future, climate is already a part of the world of your story and characters’ lives. The Playbook introduces a climate lens that helps writers to discover how to portray it in ways that are entertaining, relevant, and authentic.” Good Energy hopes to raise the occurrence of climate change keywords in scripts from the extremely low figure of 2.8% that referenced them during the period of 2016 to 2020.  


Some very successful recent films and streaming series such as The Last of Us or Avatar focus on the impact of climate change as an integral part of the story. This demonstrates there is no reason why films, or books, cannot be both entertaining and also at the same time highlight the impact humanity is having on the environment which affects everyone, and will continue to do so unless action is taken to tackle it.


Penguin (21 May 2024).

Read the review by Heather Fitt here

Author Photo © Vicki Knights


Nikki Smith

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