Ecotourism is set to boom worldwide. Asian Property Review examines the phenomenon including the challenges and solutions.
The temporary closure of Boracay in the Philippines followed by Maya Bay on Phi Phi Island, Thailand was a surprise but something that was not entirely unexpected. Both were closed due to environmental concerns. But these are not the only tourist attractions in the world that had brakes put on them by the government.
The Taj Mahal late last year had to temporarily close the mausoleum’s interior due to overcrowding while Venice is limiting cruise ships from entering the city centre, prohibiting swimming in the canals and imposing tougher penalties for littering. Barcelona has to limit the number of beds available from hotels and tourist apartments as well as freeze the building of new hotels in some zones – both to take effect in 2019. In Egypt too, in the Valley of the Queens, entry to the tomb of Queen Nefertari is priced at a hefty 1,000 Egyptian Pounds (USD56) on top of entrance fees to preserve the tomb’s condition.
While these restrictions mainly concern mainstream tourist attractions, the trend is loud and clear – there has to be a more holistic and sustainable approach to tourism.
The good news is the answer has been around for over 3 decades – in the form of eco-tourism which over the years has embraced a broader definition covering sustainable and responsible tourism, and even spilled into poverty alleviation, empowerment of women, adventure tourism and nature-based, cultural, and heritage tourism. These have become among the fastest growing segments of the tourism industry worldwide.
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All share essentially the same concept which can be distilled into 3 principles:
1. Involve local communities in the development of ecotourism. Locals are to be employed and given a stake in the profits. Part of the profits from tourism projects should be invested in communities hosting the projects, partly to alleviate poverty, and to replenish and protect the natural resources, as well as funding education and awareness;
2. Reduce the negative impact or carbon footprint on the environment, for example, by using renewable energy, recycling, climate action, sourcing for organic and fresh produce for food, promote eco-friendly activities such as cycling; and
3. Promote local and indigenous cultures and traditions; as well as empowering women.
In short, tourism should benefit conservation and host communities. “Responsible tourism is about more than carbon footprints and climate change. Protection of the natural environment, engaging with communities, sharing economic benefits and animal welfare are among the other factors which contribute to a sustainable and responsible approach to tourism,” says an industry source.
According to Center for Responsible Travel (Crest), tourism arrivals worldwide is expected to reach 1.8 bil by 2030 with an average annual growth of 4%, notwithstanding economic ups and downs. Out of that number, 57% of the arrivals in 2030 will be in emerging economies as noted by the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).
Crest estimates tourism is the main foreign exchange earner for 83% of developing countries. And according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), tourism is the world’s largest employer, accounting for one in 8 or 9 jobs globally.
Crest also highlights that ecotourism (and related concepts) have demonstrated that, if developed responsibly, tourism can help to eliminate rural poverty, foster cultural understanding and peace, educate travellers about special places and indigenous cultures, and provide economic opportunity and pride to local communities and indigenous peoples.
“Indeed, in this era of climate change, responsible travel is no longer an option, it is an imperative,” it states in its website.
Unfortunately, the tourism sector’s commitment to sustainable development is weak, according to the World Economic Forum. “It’s understandable that like most other industries, tourism is growth- oriented and profit-driven with a relatively short- sighted approach to planning and development. The primary focus is generating a return on investment to increase shareholder value as quickly as possible.”
But there is hope yet – according to Transparency market research, the fact that ecotourism has experienced double digit growth since the early 1990s, is proof that there are increasing numbers of discerning tourists and market players who are acutely conscious of the fallout on the environment from reckless development of tourist spots.
It predicts that In the next few years, ecotourism is forecasted to expand further to account for almost a quarter of the global travel market through applying good sustainable practices to various facets of the market, including hotel chains, ski resorts, urban tourist attractions, golf courses and beach resorts.
“The global ecotourism market holds out a lot of promise, especially to new players in the field,” its report states. Destruction of the pristine charm of tourist spots has certainly irked visitors and prompted a strong shift to ecotourism.
At the same time, there is a shift towards experiential tourism instead of superficial sightseeing. Tourists now prefer to engage more with locals and immerse themselves in the local culture. Volunteer work including helping out at turtle conservation centres, cleaning up beaches, working at organic farms, taking care of animal welfare, teaching language is also another segment that’s attracting increasing numbers of travellers.
At the other end of the scale, there are those who prefer adventure sports, going paragliding, white water rafting, rock climbing, caving, mountaineering, trekking, long-distance cycling and freediving (diving without oxygen tank). All of these can be classified as low-impact and sustainable tourism activities.
According to the Rainforest Alliance, nature-based tourism accounts for about 20% of international travel. The Adventure Travel Trade Association’s “Adventure Travel Trends Snapshot” reports ecotourism has the highest level of client demand overall for travel activities in 2017, followed by cultural, environmentally sustainable, and hiking activities.
CHALLENGES AND SOLUTIONS
But there are challenges; among them are as follows:
1. It can be expensive, for example, adventure tourism.
2. Ecotourism entails visiting unexplored areas, which can be unsafe at times, for example, Vietnam’s Hang Son Doong, the world’s largest caves (thankfully no casualties so far although the recent case of boys trapped in a Northern Thai cave is a reminder), border areas, and little visited mountains trails.
3. Businesses which still prioritise profits and do not adopt sustainable practices due to the higher cost involved.
4. Corrupt government officials which approve projects without an independent Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).
5. The human costs, for example, demolishing long-established settlements of indigenous people to make way for big resorts or infrastructure.
6. Overcrowding (overtourism) at tourist attractions is good for business, hence government officials look the other way and do nothing.
7. Poor planning and/or regulation in many countries enable relatively few to profit from the travel industry while host communities in tourism destinations remain poor.
8. Climate change is producing hurricanes of greater intensity, for example, in the Caribbean, and yet sun-and-sand coastal tourism largely continues to build – and rebuild – as in the past.
9. Native communities can be exploited and made to feel like a human zoo with tourists flashing cameras in their faces. Worse, some are restricted in their movement, compelled to wear traditional costume and paid little for their efforts by tour operators, for example, the Long Neck Karen women in North Thailand.
10. Animal cruelty can be inflicted, for example, elephants made to perform for tourists or
give rides have to endure torturous training. Hunting wildlife for sports is another example.
However, with some adjustments, such challenges can be overcome. At the centre of the solution is the will of the government. Government officials need to be made aware of the challenges and be willing to regulate the industry.
World Travel & Tourism Council listed several other solutions as follows:
Spread visitors over time, having them visit year-round, rather than only during one season;
Spread visitors across sites and the country to even distribution within the destination;
Adjust pricing to balance demand and supply through taxes and fees;
Regulate accommodation supply both for traditional hotels and home-sharing; and
Limit access and activities such as beer bikes in Amsterdam and drinking in the streets of Rome.
In conclusion, ecotourism is booming and its practices might even become the gold standard in the tourism industry worldwide but governments have to be wary of the challenges and take steps to regulate the industry. The Kingdom of Bhutan, for example, is one of the most eco-friendly countries in the world, and exemplifies all the best practices in ecotourism. Emulating it or even adopting some of its practices may go a long way towards moving the world towards a more holistic tourism scene.
1.Hainan, the southernmost island province of China, is now allowing companies or individuals to apply for the development and utilization of non-resident islands. The government has warned that if the ecological environment of these islands is seriously damaged, activities will be terminated and investigated.
2.Lisa Kivirist and John Ivanko run the Serendipity Bed & Breakfast in Wisconsin which is completely powered by wind and solar energy. They co-authored Farmstead Chef, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Rural Renaissance; and eat as much as possible from their own organic gardens, and from sources as close to the farmers, food artisans or growers as they can.
3.Borneo Ecotourism Solutions & Technologies (BEST) Society not only promotes the conservation of Sabah’s mega biodiversity to tourists, but also nurtures the young generation of the “River people” (Orang Sungai) emphasizing the importance of forest-regeneration and its impact on the biodiversity of flora and fauna in the Kinabatangan flood plan.
4.The 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking Company, based in Pokhara, Nepal was founded by three sisters, Lucky, Dicky and Nicky Karki Chhetri. It offers female guides and porters to female trekkers who fear harassment from male guides. They train disadvantaged women from rural areas to become professional mountain guides.
5.Rewilding Europe, a Netherlands-based NGO, plans to “re- wild” 1 mil ha of farmland across 10 locations in Europe. It also plans to reintroduce thousands of wild animals
– including bison, lynx, and wolves – across one-third of Europe. So far, it has helped set up camps within acquired nature reserves, the first of which, Star Camp, was built in eastern Portugal.
6.The Brando, established by Marlon Brando in the tiny island of Teti’aroa in French Polynesia in 1960, is almost completely carbon-neutral. Cold, deep-ocean water pumped straight from the sea powers all the resort’s air-conditioning – a world-first technology pioneered by The Brando – while a coconut oil bio-fuel station and solar panels beside the island’s airstrip provide all the power needed.
CREST: THE CASE FOR RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL
According to UNWTO, the tourism industry is committed to reducing 5% of world’s CO2 emissions; raising financing for conservation of heritage, wildlife, and the environment; and protecting and restoring biodiversity.
It proposes an integrated approach to environmental sustainability which will make efficient use of resources; invest in climate change mitigation and adaptation; increase knowledge of how environmental issues are related to tourism and increase awareness among key stakeholders.
For starters, governments cannot continue to measure success solely by increased arrival numbers or hotel beds. Success must be measured in increased retention of tourism revenue in the destination, and the equitable distribution of tourism earnings to better economic, social, and environmental conditions in the destination.
“Most governments still measure tourism success simply by the number of visitors. The more, the better. For the moment, officials have been reluctant to regulate tourism to the benefit, first of all, of their own citizens. Instead, tourism is seen as an easy money-maker and a short cut to economic development. The exceptions are standouts. France, Bhutan, Costa Rica and Canada are among the few countries with governments willing to co-ordinate policies of sustainable tourism and they haven’t suffered: they are among the most popular destinations in the world,” says author Elizabeth Becker.
HIKING – LOW IMPACT
Notably, a very low-impact activity, hiking is being targeted to send out a message of peace, hope and reconciliation. Some of the trails go across country borders, offering visitors a more varied trip. Tourism infrastructure is minimal in many places along these routes, which means that home stays are often the only lodging opportunity.”
Researchers estimate that eight billion visitors arrive every year to the world’s 140,000 protected areas. The research also calculated that these protected areas brought in at least US$600 billion to national economies. Unfortunately, only about US$10 billion is being spent to safeguard and manage these areas. WWF estimates that about 3-4 times that amount is actually required for sufficient management.
Tourism is very energy-dependent, and nearly all of the energy it uses is derived from fossil fuels. Globally, the sector causes some 5% of man-made CO2 emissions. Three quarters of these are caused by transport, with aviation accounting for 40% of the total footprint, and cars for 32%. Accommodation follows with 21%. Tourism’s contribution to global climate change is estimated to reach as much as 14%.
There are more than 70 countries and territories across the world that have million-dollar reefs—reefs that generate more than one million dollars per square kilometer. These reefs support businesses and people in the Florida Keys, Bahamas and across the Caribbean, Mexico, Indonesia, Australia, Maldives and Mauritius, to name a few.
Low-lying island idylls, such as The Maldives and the Pacific Islands, are already falling victim to rising sea levels and sea acidification that are destroying the sealife that tourists flock to see.
HOW ECO-FRIENDLY IS YOUR HOTEL?
A tree house or camping are perhaps the closest you can get to staying close to nature, but for most locations, neither is available. Hence, you have to stay in hotels or homestays.
Apart from reusing towels and using energy efficient light bulbs, there are 5 things you need to look out for if you are looking for the ‘perfect’ eco-friendly hotel: 1. Where Does The Water Come From (and is it used sustainably)?
Do they collect rainwater to keep their lawn 4. green or wash vehicles and equipment? 2.What Kind of Energy Does the Hotel Use?
If their energy comes from solar, wind power or geothermal, 10 out of 10 points for that. 3.Does the Hotel Use Local Staff and Products?
Fully using local labour is an encouraging sign that the hotel is seriously implementing sustainable tourism. However, the reality is that in many popular tourist attractions such as El Nido, Palawan, the tourist population vastly outnumbers the local population, hence the need to hire foreigners. As well, luxury hotels tend to hire foreign general managers for their expertise in providing high end hospitality services.
Does the hotel source locally for their food and drinks? Getting these from the locals not only provides fresh food and an authentic gastronomical experience for their guests but helps the local economy. 4.Does the Hotel Have a Recycling Plan?
Does the hotel have recycling bins in rooms and lounge areas for guest use, as well as the waste from the kitchen, reception and other areas? 5.Does the Hotel Help The Surrounding Community?
This is especially important where the hotel is located in an area that relies on conservation, such as a national park, rainforest or beach. Does the hotel help to protect the natural habitat around it such as a turtle conservation programme? – Source: Various