“Is sustainable tourism achievable in Asia?” that was the question posed by Deborah Chan, Wild Asia’s Responsible Tourism Associate at a seminar organized and attended by HFT Luzern, a Swiss tourism university. A group of 80 students from the university spent three weeks in Malaysia touring the peninsular and attending weekly seminars at satellite cities in Malaysia as they explored issues pertaining to tourism in Asia. At the seminar, Deborah was delighted to encounter passionate and initiated budding industry players in the hospitality field who were eager to learn, probe for answers and think out-of-the-box for solutions that plague the mass tourism scene.
The seminar was graced with leading tourism players from the private and government sector such as Diethelm Travel, YTL Group, Tourism Perak, Tourism Malaysia and Wild Asia each sharing their perspective, insight and challenges of tourism in Malaysia. Deborah shared an insightful presentation of the current perception of responsible tourism in Asia and presented case studies from which the students can glean from.
So, with all the talk about sustainability and tourism, the tough question asked was, “Is sustainability just a growing fad or a nice marketing gimmick? And can Asian operators adopt best practices that will keep the industry thriving for many more years to come?” The answer is YES. Wild Asia has received over 190 applications from 14 Asian countries in the past 8 years for their annual Responsible Tourism Awards. These applications are incredibly thorough and are benchmarked against the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria (GSTC) initially developed by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).
From these applications, Wild Asia have recognized and awarded 57 finalists and winners across Asia. Selected case studies were presented at the seminar in hope that their stories and examples would inspire young budding tourism professionals to create change from within the industry.
Deborah started the presentation with an unveiling of facts that acknowledged the tourism industry as a powerful driver in the global economy:
- By 2020, a whopping 1.6 billion tourists will be making annual trips internationally (UNWTO);
- In terms of gross economic power, tourism is in the same category as oil, energy, finance and agriculture;
- At least one in ten people around the world is employed by the travel and hospitality industry;
- Tourism creates USD$ 3 billion in business every day!
As a result of this boom, tourism also produces a series of negative effects that are often side-lined, ignored or not talked about. These negative impacts include; environmental deterioration, loss of biodiversity, exploitation of local communities and corrosion of cultures and traditions.
However, not all is lost and tourism can be a force for change.
There are tourism players in Asia who have stepped up as a catalyst for change. For example, Lisu Lodge have gone over and beyond to engage and develop the local community in the hill tribes of northern Thailand through capacity building and employment, creation of sustainable secondary source of income and indigenous community led initiatives that are tourism related.
Soneva Resort, a luxury brand and innovator in sustainable tourism. Soneva supports clean water projects, an orphanage initiative and a hunger alleviation charity. They have helped implement a local ban on shark fishing, established a coral restoration project, and their innovative carbon calculator ensures they continuously strive for inspirational resource efficiency.
A Malaysian example that was quoted is Scuba Junkie a dive operator based in beautiful Mabul Island off the east coast of Sabah. The company strives to be sensitive and have a positive effect on this unique area. Introducing the first rubbish collection scheme on the island, they are improving waste management and protecting their natural assets. They also run a Turtle Hatchery and are championing the Semporna Shark Sanctuary, in order to help save our seas.
Other case studies presented include Agri Tourism in India, El Nido Resorts in Philippines, Heritance Kandalama in Sri Lanka, Andaman Discoveries in Thailand and Nikoi Island in Indonesia.
Sustainability is not all about the operator, it’s about the traveler
“The main reason why I’m in hospitality is because I love to travel. I wouldn’t be in it if I didn’t enjoy seeing the world,” says Fabian Wilhelm. Sustainable tourism therefore needs to connect with the traveler. While operators are thinking of new ways to benefit the local community, preserve the environment and sustain the economy, they (operators) also need to think of new ways to involve the traveler and create exciting experiences that are out-of-the-box.
One thing for sure, social networks are powerful marketing tools that allow multi-dimensional conversations. An empowered, educated and informed traveler can act as a catalyst to spread the word to other travelers and potentially shake the industry to create new order in mass tourism’s modus operandi. The traveler therefore needs to experience the destination and be simultaneously educated with good travel practices that leave positive impact before they can speak up about sustainable tourism.
In conclusion, sustainable tourism is achievable in Asia, however this movement requires multi-stakeholder effort and a persistent push for it to gain enough momentum that will one day set in motion an avalanche of positive impact. Wild Asia hopes that in the short presentation given, more destination thinkers and movers will be enlightened to create more mindful ways of travel.