TTG Asia finds out why destinations should not rest on UNESCO laurels as industry players share how the coveted status interplays with tourism in the region
Singapore Botanic Gardens
Blossoming into maturity
Established in 1859, Singapore Botanic Gardens was inscribed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2015, marking a first for the city-state.
Highlights at this tropical garden paradise include the National Orchid Garden, home to the world’s largest orchid display with over 60,000 plants and orchids.
Nigel Taylor, group director at Singapore Botanic Gardens and National Parks Board (NParks), said: “Following its inscription, NParks is committed to sustaining Singapore’s green legacy through the gardens’ site management plan. Measures such as the protection of the gardens’ centuries-old trees have been set in place.”
There are also plans to add more orchid varieties to the National Orchid Garden, introduce a new Learning Forest and extend the Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden, he shared.
As well, the gardens in April announced it will develop a new Ethnobotany Garden to allow visitors to learn about plants used by indigenous cultures of South-east Asia.
Taylor added: “This will enhance the gardens’ role as an educational provider, which is in line with UNESCO’s mission.”
And since its UNESCO inscription last year, the gardens has recorded an increase in footfall, said Taylor, and now attracts more than 4.7 million visitors annually.
However, the garden does not rank top among Singapore’s must-sees, Ajambar Basmet, director of Chariot Travels noted, urging strong marketing to raise awareness of and leverage the gardens’ new UNESCO status.
Likewise, Samson Tan, CEO of GTMC Travel, wants more marketing to promote the gardens, especially at the ground level.He said: “The venue management needs to sit down with the NATAS inbound committee to brainstorm new marketing (activities) and get the industry to roll out (the initiatives in a concerted way).”
Reporting by Paige Lee Pei Qi
Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Wounded coast still a star
The world’s largest coral reef, which stretches over 2,000km along the Queensland coastline, continues to be a tourist magnate despite facing a current mass bleaching crisis.
Alex de Waal, CEO of Tourism Tropical North Queensland, said half of the visitors to the site are domestic but the number of international tourists is growing rapidly. Top source market China supplied approximately 200,000 visitors last year, followed by the US and Japan at about 130,000 and 100,000 respectively.
In recent months, the reef has reportedly been plagued with one of the worst coral bleaching crises in history with at least 35 per cent of corals in the northern and central areas killed.
Professor Terry Hughes, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, stated: “This year is the third time in 18 years that the Great Barrier Reef has experienced mass bleaching due to global warming. The current event is much more extreme than we’ve measured before.”
Nevertheless, Waal emphasised that this environmental issue has “minimal impact on the tourist”.
“This doesn’t mean the death of the reef. It’s like having a sun tan, you get burnt but don’t die. Visitors are still able to see the beautiful colours of the reef.”
Caitlin Williams, a spokesperson from the Capta Group, agreed: “We still have huge numbers of people wanting to visit the reef and there is no change in any of the sites that they visit.”
Williams added that the reef remains a top “must-do” for any visitor to Queensland.
Likewise, Andy Indra, senior sales manager of Experience Tour Australia, said the reef is still a popular destination and with its identity as renowned UNESCO World Heritage Sites clearly cemented, there is no lack of awareness of this spectacular site.
Reporting by Paige Lee Pei Qi
George Town, Malaysia
A market for festivals
Penang’s George Town has undergone tremendous transformation from its 18th century beginnings as the first British Straits Settlement to become UNESCO listed in 2008 and globally recognised for its vibrant arts and culture scene.
In honour of the UNESCO designation, the George Town Festival was inaugurated in 2010. Every year, the month-long event transforms the city into a stage showcasing local and international acts. The festival attracts some 250,000 visitors annually, both domestic and international.
In addition to the George Town Festival, Penang island also boasts a trio of cultural festivals in the last quarter of the year – the George Town Literary Festival, In-Between Arts Festival and Penang Island Jazz Festival.
Its growing array of festivals aside, George Town’s UNESCO status is also deemed advantageous for tour operators.
“The branding is important as travellers will trust an internationally recognised brand more than they would a tour operator. It makes it easier for operators to promote,” Manfred Kurz, managing director, Diethelm Travel Malaysia, said.
Henry Ong, head of business development, Holiday Tours, agreed: “The branding is an endorsement by a world body and it is important for the Caucasian markets such as Australia and Europe since they are travelling from afar to come here.”
On what more can be done, Kurz said: “Most of our Penang programmes are based around its heritage. The local government should train more special guides to conduct heritage tours and special interest tours in George Town. There is also room for improvement on the maintenance of the old site.”
In 2015, Penang saw a 4.7 per cent increase in arrivals to 683,897 tourists, a feat considering the 6.3 per cent decrease in overall arrivals into Malaysia in 2015.
Reporting by S Puvaneswary
Khao Yai, Thailand
Lush tourism potential
Located in Thailand’s north-east is the country’s oldest national park, Khao Yai, which was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.
Covering more than 2,000km2 of forest and grassland, the park teems with natural life and features such as the Haew Narok Waterfall (left) where Leonardo Dicaprio’s famed jump in The Beach was filmed.
Travel operators interviewed see value in the park’s UNESCO status.
Pornthip Hirunkate, managing director – Thailand, Destination Asia, said: “The UNESCO brand is a useful selling tool in bringing the right kind of exposure – it is also attractive as people aspire to visit renowned destinations.”
Samuel Desmier, Abercrombie & Kent’s regional managing director for South-east Asia, commented: “It is always a huge draw for travellers planning their vacations in South-east Asia. It’s a stamp of approval from the foremost authority on culture and natural beauty, and travellers commonly believe that a UNESCO Site shouldn’t be missed.”
Khao Yai’s developments over the last 10 years have made it a destination “of potential” for the luxury tour operator.
Added Desmier: “If the vineyards in Khao Yai continue to develop, the area has the potential to become the Napa Valley of South-east Asia. (Together with) its UNESCO status and the small collection of boutique five-star properties such as Kirimaya and Muti Maya, we expect the area to shine in the next five years.”
But illegal land encroachment has become an issue for Khao Yai as it grows as a hillside resort location, with the Thai government recently clamping down on properties built in the national reserve.
Pornthip remarked: “Khao Yai is a unique destination in Thailand – currently the state of tourism in and around the park needs to be controlled for the ecological future of the park and its inhabitants.”
Reporting by Xinyi Liang-Pholensa
Angkor Wat Archaeological Park, Cambodia
A push for conservation
Angkor Wat is undoubtedly Cambodia’s largest tourist attraction, drawing more than 2.1 million visitors to explore the ancient temple complex in 2015.
Spanning over 40,000ha, the archaeological park in Siem Reap is home to hundreds of temples dating from the 9th to 15th century, including the iconic Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm.
Agents say Angkor is Cambodia’s biggest selling point, with its World Heritage badge offering no additional incentive to travellers. “Angkor sells itself,” says Exo Travel’s Cambodia general manager, Pierre-André Romano, adding that 80 per cent of clients include Angkor in their itineraries. “The challenge is always to sell other elements of Cambodia.”
Likewise, Angkor also forms the centrepiece of Discover the Mekong’s itineraries, said CEO Kimhean Pich. However, the company has created tours that showcase the wider area of Siem Reap province to travellers. “We need to show there is more than just Angkor Wat,” he added.
Angkor’s World Heritage status – awarded in 1992 – has brought with it benefits, such as conservation and restoration efforts. During the last decade, decaying sections of Angkor Wat, Bayon Temple and Ta Prohm have been restored to their former glory, with work ongoing.
In June, the Cambodian government requested further help from UNESCO to assist with restoration training, claiming erosion, tourist traffic and pollution were creating a greater need.
In response to fears raised over whether the ancient structures can cope with heavy visitor volumes, the governing Apsara Authority has installed designated walkways and wooden steps to protect vulnerable areas and promoted the use of bicycles and electric bikes.
In May, all traffic was banned from the front of Angkor Wat to cut down on congestion.
Reporting by Paige Lee Pei Qi
Luang Prabang, Laos
Keeping development in check
Dubbed the best-preserved city in South-east Asia, Luang Prabang was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, but the status has not been particularly important in marketing the town.
“(The UNESCO status) is a plus and nice to have,” said Laurent Granier, co-founder and general manager of Laos Mood Travel. “But I have not noticed any agency and clients telling me they come to Luang Prabang because it is listed.”
Jon Bourbaud, Laos general manager at Apple Tree Group added: “The label is more important to ensure that future development does not happen too fast (and) bring negative impacts to Luang Prabang.”
Luang Prabang’s World Heritage Site status has helped to protect its rich architectural heritage, as regulations are placed on hotel sizes and buildings, remarked Bourbaud. He shared that Apple Tree Group’s new Parasol Blanc hotel, for example, cannot have a swimming pool due to its location is in a wetland area surrounded by natural ponds.
Granier believes the UNESCO label has helped attract newer markets like China and South Korea, especially with Lao Airlines launching new air routes to China.
But Luang Prabang’s pre-eminent status as a World Heritage site tends to overshadow other destinations in Laos.
Added Granier: “Luang Prabang has so much ‘charm’ that visiting anywhere after it is somehow challenging to propose. Sadly, Vientiane and other provinces do not have the matching profiles to be featured confidently.
“(That said), Luang Prabang is still too often the object of an extension from Bangkok or Hanoi,” he elaborated.
Reporting by Xinyi Liang-Pholsena
Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, the Philippines
Ebb and flow of a famed site
Home to the world’s longest underground river, the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park does not draw the resounding praise from tourists and agents that one might expect.
The site has had its UNESCO badge since 1999 but it only found fame in 2012 when it was recognised under a separate accolade, the New Seven Wonders of Nature.
Tourists started arriving in droves, leading the city government to limit visitation to 800 pax a day or half the daily demand.
Still, this left some concerned about the environmental impacts of tourism and whether the UNESCO committee’s recommendations are being followed.
Although the use of audio guides in place of local boatmen has helped to minimise noise in the cave, Felise Cruz, marketing and operations manager of Trips Travel, opined that tours now are less interactive and do not offer the touch of local humour.
Cruz explained that Asians, in contrast to Europeans, are less awed by the attraction since neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam share similar geography with the Philippines.
Wilson Techico, vice president for business and product development, Uni-Orient Travel, would like to see more activities introduced in the area so tourists can spend more time there.
It takes two hours to get from Puerto Princesa to the river but the river tour alone only takes about 45 minutes.
Techico said a programme packed with more activities can make the experience more memorable, adding that the few restaurants in the area serve just “basic” food.
Reporting by Rosa Ocampo
Sundarbans National Park, India
No roaring reception
Inbound operators acknowledge that this UNESCO World Heritage site has far from met its full tourism potential.
“Until now Sundarbans has been projected (mostly) as the home of the royal Bengal tiger. The challenge is to reposition it in the international market as a magical world of mangrove, rivers, flora and fauna and a site for (ecotourism),” said Surajit Bose, joint director, tourism, government of West Bengal.
Trade sources shared that roughly 5,500 foreign tourists visited the park during last year’s inbound season.
Rajib Banerjee, director, East Wind Holidays, said international demand is weak due to inadequate marketing.
“Despite being a UNESCO site, Sundarbans received less traction compared to some other sanctuaries because of the lack of infrastructure and regional connectivity,” explained Dipak Deva – managing director, Travel Corporation, India.
“A lack of forest lodges, boats and improper safety measures make it difficult to sell to foreign tourists,” added Ravi Gosain, director, Erco Travels.
Compounding the challenge is the lack of guides who speak foreign languages, both Amaresh Tiwari, managing director, AT Seasons & Vacations Travel and Arun Anand, managing director, Midtown Travels pointed out.
Nevertheless, the park’s UNESCO title brings a glimmer of hope. Tiwari remarked: “We always highlight (the UNESCO badge) in our brochures and marketing material to sell the destination.”
Also optimistic, Anand added: “There is a segment of international tourists who always keep in mind to visit such sites.”
Reporting by Rohit Kaul
Himeji Castle, Japan
Among the most popular of Japan’s 18 UNESCO World Heritage Sites is the ancient Himeji Castle, also known as the White Heron castle.
A record number of over 2.8 million people visited the castle in the town of Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture in the financial year ending March 31, 2015, of which 306,348 were from overseas, nearly four times the figure of the previous year. The previous record of over 1.7 million visitors was set in 1964.
The UNESCO tag carries great weight for visitors to Japan. Shigeki Misawa of the sales division of inbound specialists Freeplus said: “In our experience, virtually all tourists coming to Japan on a package tour will go to at least one UNESCO site.”
However, agents expressed that there are other important factors such as location and proximity to other attractions.
“Himeji Castle is very popular with overseas groups because it is convenient to reach, while somewhere like Shiretoko is much harder to get to,” said Hayashi Nori, director of sales of Tokyo Asean Service.
He added: “Places like Shiretoko or the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine in Shimane Prefecture have relatively few other attractions… Groups will not be happy to travel for three hours just to see one thing.”
Nori opined there are ways to better capitalise on the appeal of UNESCO sites. “The national government and local authorities need to do more, such as providing information on how to get to the more remote sites or details on accommodation,” he said.
“It would (also) be helpful if local governments hold workshops for agents to inform us of additional attractions in their regions.”
Reporting by Julian Ryall
Kandy, Sri Lanka
Paving the way
Widely seen as Sri Lanka’s cultural capital, the pre-colonial kingdom is one of eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country.
Famous for the 17th century Sacred Temple of the Tooth, the city is also home to the Kandy Esala Perahera, a 10-day Buddhist ceremony replete with elephants in ceremonial gear, dancers, drummers and stilt-walkers that parade the streets.
Rodney Armstrong, past president of the Kandy Hoteliers’ Association and resident manager at Mahaweli Reach Hotel – Kandy, said the city, 115km north of Colombo, has great potential of serving as a hub and destination for three-night stays if roads are widened and traffic congestion is alleviated. Currently, single-night itineraries are more typical of visits to the city.
Similarly, traffic poses the biggest problem in growing Kandy’s tourism for Colombo-based inbound agents like Mahen Kariyawasam, managing director of Andrews Travels, who added that the authorities have plans to build tunnels to help road users bypass the busy city centre.
Government plans include the widening of entry roads. A new four-lane highway from Colombo is on the cards, aimed at shaving the trip time from at least 180 minutes to 60-80 minutes.
Both Mahen and Armstrong also see value in adding a dance theatre to the city, which they suggested could be the cultural centre of the city where authentic Kandyan dances and other cultural events are showcased.
At least 80 per cent of foreign visitors to Sri Lanka visited Kandy last year, according to Sri Lankan Tourism.
Reporting by Feizal Samath