Asian Property Review talks to Samantha Bray, Managing Director of Center for Responsible Travel (CREST) on how to deal with overtourism, the result of international tourism’s increasing popularity.
1. In recent months, cities and beaches like Venice, Barcelona, Boracay and Maya Bay (Thailand) are limiting or completely banning tourists. What are the pros and cons and are there other alternatives to these drastic measures?

Overtourism is an issue we’re looking at very closely at CREST, and we will be hosting a forum to discuss solutions on World Tourism Day, September 27, this year. International tourism is a wonderful and necessary occurrence for our global community. It puts much-needed money into economies and is a form of soft diplomacy – a tool for peace and understanding – when planned for and managed appropriately.
Unfortunately, the number of visitors coming to our world’s wonderful places are, in some cases, leading the places to be “loved to death.” We are all still grappling with how to manage this. In some situations, the environments of these places are in such danger, or the local communities have become so fed up, that banning or limiting visitors, at least for a short amount of time until a plan can be put into place, is the only option.

However, there are certainly other options: Staggering entry times for cruise or bus tourists; implementing ticketing or reservation systems; and levying new tourism taxes are options.
There are also more opportunities to promote lesser-known attractions to spread out the visitors. Amsterdam has been very innovative, creating an app called “Discover the City,” which sends the user a notification when certain sites are busier than normal and suggests alternatives.
Venice has recently proposed charging day-trippers to come into the city center, as stay-over visitors leave behind much more in the local economy. Dubrovnik, Croatia, has implemented a strategy to stagger cruise arrivals so as not to overwhelm the city, and has been backed in this effort by Cruise Lines International Association. Machu Picchu now only has two timed entries a day.
We will be exploring solutions to many different types of tourist destinations at our Forum, and shortly thereafter coming out with a book of compiled solutions that will be useful for other destinations grappling with how to enjoy the economic stimulus and cultural exchange of tourism but at the same time needing to ensure their precious sites are available for generations to come.
2. On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being extremely successful), how has sustainable tourism fared so far compared to mass or mainstream tourism?

I would say we’re at about a 6, which is headed in the right direction! At CREST,
we view sustainable tourism as a three- pronged approach, involving socio-cultural, environmental, and economic planning. All three must be considered for a destination to truly be sustainable. The “sustainable tourism” movement really started in the 70s and 80s with small-scale ecotourism, and was given a worldwide platform when the United Nations designated 2002 as the International Year of Ecotourism. We just hit another landmark last year when 2017 was designated by the United Nations as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.

We are seeing an increasing number of travellers who are interested in authentic, localized experiences. They are turned off by run-of-the-mill attractions you could find anywhere. We are also seeing a growing number of destinations realizing that the very resources and attractions that draw tourists to visit them are in danger, so they are working to protect their environments, wildlife, and unique cultural attractions. These environments and cultures are what differentiates one destination from another.
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At CREST, we believe all tourism should be sustainable, not just ecotourism and community- based ventures. This means the large hotel chains, cruise lines, airlines, etc. need to be on board with the movement. Through Corporate Social Responsibility departments, we are starting to see real progress being made. But there is still a lot of work to do.

I encourage you to read our annual publication, “The Case for Responsible Travel: Trends & Statistics 2017” for a snapshot on the latest trends.

3. There is obviously a lot of room for improvement when it comes to sustainable tourism – what are some measures that can be done to increase participation in this segment?

Most travellers are going on vacation to have fun, and often times, to learn something about a new place. I believe much progress could be made if tourism businesses and destinations could work to educate visitors regarding the issues they are dealing with and to provide opportunities for them to help. Maybe it’s through weekly beach clean-ups that you offer for visitors to join alongside a marine biologist, to learn about the incredible wildlife and how the hotel/community is working to protect them.

Maybe it’s as simple as providing a reusable water bottle for guests. Maybe it’s through using paper straws. Maybe it’s through forming partnerships with locally owned tour operators or attractions that are responsible community members. Maybe it’s as simple as sharing information with your guests about how you are helping to protect the environment or giving back to your community.
The options are limitless. There are so many ways to educate visitors without being condescending or limiting their fun. Travel is one of the best ways we, as adults, can learn, and maybe experience what a visitor on vacation will transfer with them when they go back home. There is a growing number of visitors who are looking for environmentally and socially responsible companies, so businesses that are doing good work should not be afraid to share that. Those who are not picking up on this trend will be left behind.

4. List some less conventional ecotourism activities that have been overlooked or underrated.
It’s important to remember there are fantastic opportunities in all forms of responsible travel, including within the niche of ecotourism. Start with your accommodation. Companies like BookDifferent, Kind Traveler, and Responsible Travel provide a directory of sustainably-minded hotels. We can also make a few specific recommendations: Check out our Travelers’ Philanthropy page for a listing of hotels and tour operators that are making meaningful differences in the places they visit.

When thinking about activities, do some research before your trip to see if there are any community- based tourism initiatives in the destination you are visiting. These initiatives work to ensure you have an authentic local experience and also that funds are going back into the protection of the environment and culture of the community itself. Andaman Discoveries in Thailand is a fantastic example. Visit. org and Lokal Travel also offers immersive day activities within local communities.
Try to eat at locally owned restaurants with locally- sourced food (a smaller carbon footprint), and do a search in your destination to find out if there are any sustainable restaurant initiatives.
Offset your carbon emissions through an organization like The Ocean Foundation, NativeEnergy, or The Nature Conservancy. For those seeking local, nature-based recreation, LooLa Adventure Resort has it all. Soneva in Thailand and the Maldives is a huge advocate for responsible travel and is a luxury travel leader. Coco Collection is another environmentally responsible luxury option.
You can also consider volunteering with local environmental organizations, like those offered by the Sea Turtle Conservancy in Tortuguero, Costa Rica, or taking a wildlife watching safari that give back to conservation programs and enhance the value of the cultural heritage. Our Responsible Travel Tips offer a wide range of tips to make your overall experience more sustainable, and – we are convinced – a better, more unique, and memorable experience.

5. Which vulnerable cities/resorts do you foresee require a limit or even ban to visitor numbers due to the damage caused by too many tourists?
The World Monument’s Fund 2018 Watch List, UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger and IUCN Red List of Ecosystems are useful indicators. Of course, tourism does not play a role in all of these sites, but it does in many. Both The Telegraph in the UK and Skift in the U.S. provide useful commentary on destinations experiencing Overtourism, which can be referenced for specific examples.

6. Can you list 2 or 3 success stories in Asia where the locals benefitted financially, socially and environmentally from a careful management of the tourism impact on their land or culture?

a. Bhutan – As we understand it, Bhutan is a prime example of carefully managed, sustainable tourism that is beneficial to local communities. In the 1970’s the government implemented a policy of “high- value, low-volume” tourism, which has enabled the country to maintain a balanced flow of tourists that contribute greatly to the economy. All tourists have to pay high tariffs to enter the country. An example of this high value tourism is in the rural district of Haa, where the Royal Society for Protection of Nature (an NGO associated with the government of Bhutan) and the Japan Environmental Education Forum implemented a three-year project to strengthen the impacts of tourism. They helped the community to further develop their services (including certified homestays, a visitor center, souvenirs, etc.), establish a community-based management group, and connect with other district tourism management groups to share resources. These homestays are now available through the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators’ website. The community-based group also successfully petitioned to halt the construction of high end resorts. This is not to say that all sustainable tourism come at a high cost, but the focus on quality over quantity has been successful for Bhutan.

b. CGH Earth – CGH Earth, one of CREST’s Platinum Sponsors, is a tour operator/hotelier offering experiences in southern India. Their main values are to remain “Clean, Green, Healthy,” and always put the interests of the local community first. All of their cottages are built with local resources; for example, they revived the practice of thatching roofs with elephant grass. In 2009, one of their resorts was awarded the PATA Award for Environment, being the first resort in India to receive such an award. Spice Village is modelled after the tribal dwellings of the Manan tribe and offers tours of the medicinal flora of the Periyar area. Tourists can also visit the Periyar Tiger Reserve to view endangered tigers and elephants. All of the suppliers and guides come from the local community; there is even a local cooperative that supplies honey to the village. These activities have provided a sustainable source of income for individuals and placed a value on all aspects of their cultural and natural heritage.

c. South Korea – Recently, the South Korean government has been increasing its support towards community-based tourism. This has included training programs for guides and emphasizing the preservation of natural and cultural destinations. Recently, a professor at Seoul National University developed Playforest, a cooperative of South Korean tour operators providing community-based tourism experiences.
The cooperative allows tour operators to share resources and promote their services. Playforest has partnered with the Global Sustainable Tourism Council to provide training in sustainable tourism this year, and paved the way for a Korean Sustainable City Tourism Standard. Many of the tours offered take tourists off-the-beaten-path from the city of Seoul to the agricultural perimeters of Gyeonggi-do, where tourists can participate in a “farming exchange” to learn about these rural communities.

7. How has AirBnb helped in providing the authenticity of experience for travellers? Is this the future of travel where locals participate in the provision of accommodation and eco-friendly local activities including the provision of home cooked meals and in the process deriving an income, thus fulfilling the criteria of sustainable or ecotourism?

When used as intended – visitors staying in an extra room, suite, or guest house of an otherwise occupied home, interacting with locals – Airbnb and other home-sharing services provide a fantastic opportunity for visitors to experience the authentic places they are visiting. In addition, the presence of home-sharing services provides many additional room nights for a destination, while limiting the number of new infrastructure that needs to be built. They also lower the barriers to entry for locals to enter the tourism industry, thus spreading out the tourism dollar. All very good things! At its best, home-sharing services absolutely can help to fulfil the criteria of sustainable tourism.

However, there are also many issues that do the exact opposite. Both destinations and AirBnb (and other similar services) are still trying to work out all the kinks in regulation and taxation for this type of accommodation, as there is no one-size-fits-all policy in place.
One of the biggest problems is single owners buying up multiple properties, pricing out locals and not offering a real home-sharing opportunity at all. In cities like Savannah, Georgia, and Barcelona, locals are speaking out as their rents become too expensive and their traditional residential neighbourhoods become the sites of spring break parties and bachelorettes.

Certified B&Bs, hotels, and vacation homes are upset because home-sharing services often do
not pay accommodation taxes to provide for the management and marketing of the destination, as they do. There are also complaints of individual properties listed on home-sharing services being unsafe or not-as-advertised. Finding the right solutions for these problems is a work-in-progress, and one that many destinations are actively working to solve.
I live in Charleston, South Carolina, and our city has recently established strict rules on short-term rentals, which attempt to avoid multiple-listing issues and changing the fabric of residential neighbourhoods.

8. Any advice/tips for tourism providers/operators and tourists themselves to further the sustainable tourism vision?
Absolutely! The first stop for tourism providers should be the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC). This highly-respected organization provides benchmark criteria for destinations, hotels, and tour operators.
Tourism businesses can also look to become certified by a recognized certification program (either regionally focused or country-specific, if available). The GSTC shares on their websites the certification programs that meet international standards. Destinations can also receive an assessment from GSTC on their overall sustainability, and CREST is a designated assessor.
The end result is a diagnostic that helps the destination to become more sustainable overall. For tourists, we provide our Responsible Travel Tips, which list tips for before you leave, while you’re
on vacation, and when you return. The GSTC also provides a section on their website for traveller guidelines. The Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) is also a great resource for businesses looking to be involved with sustainable tourism in the region.
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