Making sustainable tourism work

In the face of an overtourism crisis, a growing number of industry players are becoming more attuned to manage tourism in a responsible manner. But it’s not just about the environment, as the human side of the equation should not be neglected.

Swimming with a whale shark

While there is no dearth of sustainable tourism initiatives, the overarching question is whether travel consumers and industry players are engaged enough to meet responsible travel in this age of mass tourism.

After all, awareness about responsible tourism, while growing, is still at a nascent stage. “We’re far from achieving the goals. A lot of work needs to be done,” PATA CEO Mario Hardy said at the sidelines of the PATA Annual Summit 2019 in Cebu.

Swimming with a whale shark

“We have to get together and get this fixed once and for all. We cannot continue to damage this beautiful planet,” Hardy pointed out.

Various organisations have been rolling out initiatives to address sustainability, one of the biggest challenges in travel and tourism. The UN has Sustainable Development Goals (SDG); WTTC recognises best tourism practices, among other projects; and last May, PATA published a report on how food waste and excess in tourism can be halved as part of its BUFFET Campaign.

American nonprofit Planet Happiness has initiated an online survey metric that measures the wellbeing of residents and communities in world heritage sites, including Ayutthaya and Sukhothai in Thailand; Bali, Borobudur and Komodo National Park in Indonesia; Hoi An in Vietnam; and Luang Prabang in Laos.

Planet Happiness co-founder and director Paul Rogers told TTG Asia that the objectives are to raise awareness about the need to identify alternative measures of development – apart from GDP – and to address overtourism through responsible and sustainable forms.

As more destinations worldwide grapple with overtourism, an industry refocus on destination management – rather then destination promotion – has emerged. This move is exemplified by Slovenia which is aligning its tourism branding along dimensions of sustainable development.

Brands should have a strong, authentic story hinged on the values of the destination, and be able to communicate the story well by creating products that are in line with the brand vision. “Branding is all about perception, which is something that will continue to change overtime,” emphasised Maja Pak, director general, Slovenian Tourist Board.

Arnel Yaptinchay, Kirschner Travel Manila general manager and Marine Wildlife Watch founder, said: “There are ways to manage a destination to achieve sustainability goals, starting with a sustainability frame work and criteria (e.g. Global Sustainable Tourism Standards), the appropriate policy and then its implementation.

“It becomes a bit tricky in sensitive natural sites, but that can be fully addressed with proper regulations to meet the goals of a conservation site, e.g. by limiting the visitor numbers.”

Curtailing visitor numbers and closing destinations to let them breathe from mass tourism are being carried out in certain key attractions in Thailand and the Philippines.

However, there are still quarters that equate sustainability only to the natural environment, neglecting other equally important aspects such as the locals’ wellbeing, sourcing of water and food, investing in learning, exploitation, etc.

Yaptinchay emphasised: “Sustainability in tourism is not only for natural sites – now mostly referred to as ecotourism – but is also much needed and relevant across all destinations or facilities, be it large cities, hotel chains, or cultural sites.

“Sustainability has to be built and grown from within so it inherently makes investments in local communities, the environment, people’s wellbeing, education of tourists, etc. relevant,” he stressed.

In fact, Asia Pacific Projects founder Narzalina Lim said that the SDGs are “very comprehensive and complex and not just focused on environmental sustainability, but also on ending poverty and inequality, reducing food waste, promoting responsible consumption and creating partnerships to achieve the SDGs, to name a few”.

“Hotels, resorts and other tourist facilities should be retrofitted to use renewable energy and rain water catchment facilities should be installed as water is getting scarcer. These may be expensive now but it will save owners a lot in energy and water consumption. New laws that require new buildings to conform with sustainable principles should be enacted,” Lim added.

She lamented the impact of neglecting other aspects of sustainability.

“While the environment is important, people are equally important too. As long as they remain poor and ignorant, excluded from the profits that big tourism players earn, they will continue to damage the environment and create social problems.”

Boracay is a clear example, said Lim. While the island’s 2017 tourism revenues hit 56.2 billion pesos (US$1.1 billion), 22.9 per cent of its residents and 21.2 per cent of residents in mainland Malay were poor. “This is unacceptable,” she stressed.

Lim is also unimpressed by Boracay’s six-month closure last year for rehabilitation, calling the move “just for show” and “not sustainable”.

Alluding to certain jerrybuilt structures and flooding in certain parts of Boracay after a four-hour downpour last May, Lim said: “One can see the results now. When the life of the inter-agency task force ends next year, what next? The re-elected mayor has vowed to go back to business as usual.”

PATA’s Hardy underscored the importance of educating both residents and tourists alike. Recalling his visit to western Samoa last year, he noted during a 45-minute ride from the airport that the country was “extremely clean, with not even a cigarette butt” on the streets.

The taxi driver told Hardy that over 20 years ago, an elderly widow took it upon herself to pick up the trash on the streets during her daily morning walks. Other adults and children in the village soon followed suit. The practice swiftly spread to other villages and this trash-picking tradition is still followed today.

It’s the same story with Yap Island, Hardy said. “It’s about educating the people to do this. People are proud of their land and environment so they clean up,” Hardy explained, adding that there’s no reason why that habit cannot be replicated in congested cities. “It is your responsibility to clean up your own mess. If you see someone throwing trash, tell him off. Others will follow your lead, and eventually, it will spread,” he said.

Lim wants due punishment for misbehaving tourists: “We should strictly enforce our rules and regulations. Those who don’t comply should be fined, arrested, or imposed with whatever sanctions so they know we mean business.”

Education is key for Yaptinchay,. “It is important for tourists to understand what they are visiting. This can be reinforced by making information available online in different languages, orienting and arming tour operators with the understanding, and putting up signages at the site itself.”

He added: “Most visitors want to make better choices when they travel. They just need to be presented with the ‘what’ and ‘how’ information. Of course, strict regulations that are enforced in an attraction or site (e.g. penalties for littering, proper attire in religious sites, ‘do not touch’ policy for wildlife) are part of the awareness raising process. Demand respect!”

Lim warned though that too many tourists in a fragile environment will never be sustainable, citing as an example the Philippines whose “attractions are in fragile islands or forests which cannot stand the impact of mass tourism.”

What can be done, Lim said, is to develop more beach destinations in mainland, as opposed to islands, to cater to mass tourism.

“The beaches may not be as beautiful as Boracay, etc. but the resorts can be designed in such a way that there are several pools, entertainment areas, shopping and dining that tourists need not look for a Boracay, Panglao, or Northern Palawan experience. These island destinations should have more upmarket, luxury accommodations – low volume, high yield.”

Tourism sustainability is a challenge in any sector and it still has a long way to go. But hopefully, it will become the norm in the near future.

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