Asia Pacific Ecotourism Trends & Sustainable Tourism Development

More people are travelling now than ever before. Given the rise of visitor arrivals and increased trips to natural areas including ecologically sensitive ones as well as places where local culture is a highlight, uphold ecotourism principles have become important so as to minimise negative impacts on people and the environment. Gaia Discovery’s publisher Mallika Naguran speaks to three industry experts for their views on ecotourism trends, developments and industry movements toward sustainability.

Singapore, 30 March 2017. Everybody likes to get on a bus, boat or plane to travel, or so it seems. Since 2009, there’s been a four percent or more annual increase in international tourist arrivals, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO). Translating that to actual numbers, international tourists have grown from a mere 25 million globally in 1950 to 278 million in 1980, 674 million in 2000, and a whopping 1186 million in 2015. Now that’s a lot of people crossing country borders for business or leisure!

And it is going to get even bigger. The UNWTO predicts that there will be 1.8 billion international tourists in 2030 – 57 percent of which will be in emerging economies.

The tourism industry is slicing for itself a bigger share of the economic pie. International tourism in 2016 represented seven percent of the world’s exports in goods and services, up from six percent in 2014, as tourism has grown faster than world trade over the past four years. As a worldwide export category, tourism in 2016 ranked third after fuels and chemicals and ahead of food and automotive products. In many developing countries, tourism ranked as the first export sector last year (UNWTO).

Within the wide spectrum of tourism segment, ecotourism is getting popular. There’s been an increase in nature-bound activities across Asia. Even remote places requiring multiple transits do not deter the determined nature enthusiasts to go out of their comfort zones to bask in new experiences in unfamiliar territories.

Searching for the Ecotourism Difference

Such people are looking for “experiential travel and authentic connections with local people and nature” said Hitesh Mehta, President of HM Design and a pioneer in the field of authentic ecotourism with considerable experience in Asia Pacific.

Ecotourism as defined by Global Ecotourism Network is "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, socially and economically sustains the well-being of the local people, and creates knowledge and understanding through interpretation and education of all involved".  

According to Masaru Takayama, Founding Chair of the newly formed Asian Ecotourism Network (AEN), there aren’t reliable statistics to measure specifically ecotourism arrivals in Asia. “But seeing the overall rise in the visitor arrival number, it is fair to say that the arrival is on the rise and the activity is becoming more diverse,” said Takayama, also the President of Spirit of Japan Travel and the Executive Director of Japan Ecolodge Association.

Such diverse activities, according to Mehta, include “nature and cultural immersion” genre with popular ecotourism activities such as bird watching, snorkelling, homestays, local foods and interpretative guiding. 

According to a 2015 study by Conservation International, Rainforest Alliance, and UNEP, tropical forests are a key natural attraction. Tours in tropical forests may include any of these: “bird watching and wildlife viewing, hiking, camping and nature walks, horseback riding, cycling and mountain biking, and, in some areas, freshwater fishing, canoeing, kayaking, rafting and river tours.”

Tourists are also becoming more aware of responsible tourism practices. Mehta believes that such visitors intentionally book up with “organisations that are committed to sustainable tourism leadership in local community development, empowerment and cultural heritage”. (Read more on what Hitesh Mehta said about sustainable tourism leadership here)

According to World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), research studies continue to show that travellers prefer companies that embed green or eco-friendly practices into their operations. Travellers are coming to expect that tourism businesses will become sustainable in the same way they expect free Wi-Fi connectivity in hotels or online check-in for air travel, it noted.

Some are even willing to fork out more, observed Mehta, for “quality eco-luxury experiences” like $700 a night for the new Bamboo Villas at Crosswaters Ecolodge and Spa.

The percentage of consumers who are willing to pay more for sustainable brands that showed commitment to social and environmental values went up from 55 percent to 66 percent between 2014 and 2015, reported Nielson Company.   About 73 percent of the younger generations – Millennials and Generation Z – are more likely to pay more for sustainability, compared to 51 percent of Baby Boomers.

Masaru Takayama: Asean Ecotourism Network is becoming the window for Asia in ecotourism.

Masaru Takayama: Asean Ecotourism Network is becoming the window for Asia in ecotourism.

Sometimes, traveller awareness of ecotourism – or the lack of it – boils down to semantics. “The majority of the visitors are unlikely to seek their holiday or destination by the word 'sustainable'; rather (it would be) 'responsible holiday' or 'eco-conscious',” said Takayama.

There are differences in definition, values and scope when it comes to terms such as ‘sustainable tourism’, ‘responsible tourism’, ‘nature tourism’, ‘ecotourism’ and more.

Where ‘sustainable’ hotels have been the keyword for luxury among Europeans, Takayama sees more Asians understanding the concept, particularly the more affluent ones. “They are more eco-conscious and the perception for them is a cool way to travel where not many others have yet to set their foot,” said Takayama.

Tourism for Sustainable Development

The importance of tourism to development and social progress cannot be downplayed. The tourism industry in 2016, according to WTTC, contributed to 10 percent of the world GDP. In 2015, international tourism was worth $1.5 trillion in exports. One in 11 jobs is tourism related.

Managing tourism sustainably will help raise finances for the conservation of heritage, wildlife and the environment, including climate change mitigation.

PATA's Chi Lo: Tourism has to innovate to embrace sustainability or face being obsolete in the future.

PATA's Chi Lo: Tourism has to innovate to embrace sustainability or face being obsolete in the future.

Chi Lo, Sustainability & Social Responsibility Specialist of Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), thinks that tourists are becoming more aware of sustainable hotels and destinations, and that the industry is taking great steps to mainstream sustainability.

Sustainability in fact concerns all segments of tourism and hospitality players, and not just ecotourism. This has largely to do with the United Nations declaring 2017 as the UN International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, said Takayama, adding that since then, the industry has become more sensitive on using the word ‘sustainable tourism’.

But there’s room for improvement in advocating sustainable tourism. “We as an industry need to do more to help tourists make more educated decisions,” said Lo. She noted that a new initiative called Hotels Owners for Tomorrow (HOT) would be “instrumental in ensuring that new and refurbished hotels will incorporate sustainability elements within their design and operations.”

Mehta, who has designed many ecolodges around the world, sees an upward trend in the use of ecologically-sound principles in planning, building, materials and development.  “Ecolodges have recently been developed in new and emerging destinations like Myanmar and Laos and established destinations like Indonesia, China and India are seeing more and more nature-based tourism facilities that are using sustainable technologies and figuring out ways to save money through water and energy conservation, use of local materials, passive design techniques etc.,” said Mehta. (Read more on what Hitesh Mehta says about ecoresort design and planning here)

Tourism Policy and Alignment to the SDGs

According to Takayama, the UN’s 10 Year Framework Programme (10YFP)* is leading the way to promote SDGs in sustainable tourism. “Japan Ecolodge Association and Ecotourism Korea are both on the multi-stakeholder advisory committee and the government of South Korea is the co-lead of the programme with Morocco and France,” he said.

The United Nation’s 10YFP on sustainable consumption and production patterns is a global framework of action to enhance international cooperation to accelerate the shift towards sustainable consumption and production in both developed and developing countries.

SDGs, short for Sustainable Development Goals, are a universal call to action with 17 goals to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. It builds on the successes of the Millennium Development Goals and includes new areas such as climate change, economic inequality, innovation, sustainable consumption, peace and justice, among other priorities (UNDP).

“Ecotourism policies are being or have been implemented in a number of Asian countries,” Takayama said, citing Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and the Philippines in particular.

Frangipani Langkawi Resort in Malaysia purifies grey water using aquatic plants.

Frangipani Langkawi Resort in Malaysia purifies grey water using aquatic plants.

Lo is hopeful that the momentum of sustainable operations in the tourism sector will continue. “This year is huge because of the UN designation of the international year of sustainable development through tourism. It will be interesting to see what kinds of initiatives will come out of this, and how it will be carried on beyond 2017,” she said.

Ecotourism Trends Beyond 2020

Are ecotourism trends likely to continue or change from 2017 to beyond 2020? “I think so,” said Lo. “As long as the industry is able to continue to push and innovate ways to educate the traveler, I think the consumer will likewise continue to demand sustainability in their travels. I don’t think they will pay for it, but I think they will come to expect it more and more. Those who do not comply will fall behind.”  

She gave the Blackberry analogy of losing business due to failure to adapt and evolve. “If tourism businesses don’t adapt and evolve, let alone innovate, they will become obsolete,” she said.

Mehta believes that nature-based tourism will still be in demand in the next few decades. “Considering that urban populations are going to grow exponentially in Asia over the next 30 years, the need to travel to natural areas for rest and relaxation is inevitable. I have no doubts that ecotourism will indeed continue to set the trends in the tourism industry.”

Takayama reckons that the trends are likely to accelerate given that low cost travels are becoming widely available. He has major concerns, though, with the “alarming rate” of increasing tourist numbers coupled with climate change. “Climate change is triggering unprecedented events of natural disasters; food safety and traceability are becoming more important; security and sanitation issues are still considered one of the most important travel decision making factors,” he said.

Ecotourism Movement on the Rise

Several societies that uphold ecotourism values and principles have been formed around the world. One such recent grouping is the Asian Ecotourism Network (AEN) based in Asia and Pacific, which was formed by the former board members of The International Ecotourism Society (TIES).

According to Takayama, the AEN was established by like-minded ecotourism players from 17 countries and regions. This is expected to grow to a 19-country-and-region network by May 2017 that will promote the following: “cross-learning, sharing experiences, setting collective goals and missions etc.” to enhance sustainability for the benefit of the industry and governments.

Pioneering members of the Asian Ecotourism Network represent Asia Pacific's growing commitment to ecotourism principles.

Pioneering members of the Asian Ecotourism Network represent Asia Pacific's growing commitment to ecotourism principles.

“We are trying to set the ecotourism standard for Asia, not just replicating the Western models, to fit the needs uniquely seen in Asia,” said Takayama. A key component of the AEN is the capability of board members to provide training in Global Sustainable Tourism Council certification so as to “deliver the sustainable tourism training in the Asian countries.”

“AEN is becoming the window for Asia and beyond in ecotourism,” said Takayama.

Another ecotourism grouping, of which Mehta is a founding board member, is Global Ecotourism Network or GEN. “GEN's mission is to bring together the world’s national and regional ecotourism associations and networks, destinations, indigenous peoples, global operators, professionals and academicians to grow the industry, provide advocacy and thought leadership, and to encourage innovation and authenticity in ecotourism,” said Mehta.

“GEN will act as a vital resource for evaluating ecotourism practices and disseminating authentic ecotourism trends, applied research and experience driven studies,” he added.

Lo explained PATA’s partnership with private and public sector members served to “enhance the sustainable growth, value and quality of travel and tourism to, from, and within the region.” She elaborated further. “We provide leadership and council to our member organisations, and contribute to the sustainable and responsible development of travel and tourism in the Asia Pacific region and beyond, through our Strategic Intelligence Center, our events, and our Foundation.”

“Through our sustainability efforts, including our microsite dedicated to spreading knowledge relating to sustainable and responsible tourism, and our efforts in human capital development, it is our intention to shape a better future for our industry,” she said, referring to PATA’s website on sustainability and social responsibility.

Can Ecotourism Be Managed Better?

Ecotourism may be a niche market when compared with the mainstream tourism, said Takayama.  However it should not be overlooked.  “Mass tourism in the natural areas especially in the protected areas has more negative impacts than the urban areas. Ecotourism bodies should be consolidating and setting the common goals to advocate the industry and the consumers,” he said.

He urged governments to work with ecotourism players and not just consultants or non-ecotourism players so as to channel public funds in the right direction and to secure quality programmes. “In this regard, AEN will have the network of people and organisations that are practising ecotourism on the ground and we look forward to working more with public organisations,” he said.

To ensure that ecotourism is better understood, appreciated or managed, Lo called for  continued education among tourism stakeholders that include staff, partners within all sectors of the industry, government and academia, travellers and communities.

Environmental education and interpretation, according to Conservation International,  Rainforest Alliance and UNEP, is about communicating ideas and messages that increase visitor awareness, knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the social, natural, and cultural characteristics of a destination.

With increased environmental education, ecotourism can only take to the skies in growth, appeal and outreach around the world.

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