PATA forum hails responsible travel
The Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Destination Experience Forum and Mart 2023 (PDFM 2023) was recently hosted by the Sarawak Tourism Board at the Borneo Convention Centre Kuching in Sarawak, Malaysia.
The three-day event themed ‘Sustainability in Action’, saw 272 delegates from 28 destinations coming together to discuss the latest in travel trends, the future of tourism and why responsible travel is the need of the hour.
PATA Chair Peter Semone said that the tourism sector is at a crucial juncture; it is time for change and for the sector to embrace sustainability. In his opening note to the conference, he said: “In 1991, PATA had an annual conference in Bali, which was about sustainability …we spoke about all these issues years ago. I think, this is going to be a dance between tourists and the destinations. Tourists are just as responsible for being and acting sustainable as are the suppliers of tourism. And my theory is this: firstly, we should have some sort of a conduct when a visitor comes to visit a destination.”
As the number of tourists rise exponentially – they have increased year on year since the crash of tourism in the year of COVID-19, in 2020; the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) estimates that in 2023, 235 million tourists travelled internationally in the first three months, more than double those in the same period of 2022 – they put ever more pressure on the resources and infrastructure of the visited country. But if these numbers were to demand sustainable travel, it would also increase the chances of the country following responsible guidelines.
A FINE BALANCE
Semone said: “I can tell you from the PATA perspective, destinations are looking for answers to what are complicated questions, and I don’t want to be naïve and suggest sustainability at the price of profit; it can’t be, because companies have to make profit. People invest money into businesses with the expectation to get money in return, so there has to be a lot of balance that has to happen; economic balancing, environmental balancing; and of course, the communities’ needs in question. So, it’s a real complicated question, we are in a race…we need to redefine how we operate tourism and what the expectations of our customers are.”
Sharzede Datu Hj. Salleh Askor, the Chief Executive Officer of the Sarawak Tourism Board (STB), pointed out the Sarawak has been practising sustainable travel for some time. “We are very fortunate that Sarawak tourism has never looked into mass tourism, we have always looked into niche tourism and marketing. We started looking into digital tourism since 2018 and we started that journey and we looked into greening since 2011, but now with everything more focused on sustainability, it helps us to accelerate and intensify our activities and initiatives towards that,” she said.
One of the trends that’s picking up speed these days is ecotourism. The Global Ecotourism Network (GEN) defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and creates knowledge and understanding through interpretation and education of all involved (visitors, staff and the visited)”.
Masaru Takayama, Asian Ecotourism Network Founding Chair, explained that the new trends in ecotourism include digital transformation, meaningful experiences, ability to work from anywhere, education through environmental tourism and leaving behind a low carbon footprint.
Hannah Pearson, Regional Director APAC, Adventure Travel Trade Association, added that adventure tourism has been drawing fans of late. “Adventure tourism incorporates and promotes the values of the tourism that we want – a tourism that respects cultural and natural assets, and protects the most vulnerable,” according to Taleb Rifai, former UNWTO Secretary General. Pearson made a case for it being preferable to mass tourism, saying that while 14 percent of revenues stay in the country if there’s mass tourism, 65 per cent remain if it’s a case of adventure tourism. Besides, she added more jobs were added by adventure tourism rather than mass tourism.
The types of adventure trips that are exciting tourists include: expert or specialist-guided trips; domestic/regional travel; slow travel itineraries; greener/sustainable/low-impact itineraries; custom itineraries; remote destinations/trails; wellness and mindfulness itineraries; diversity-equity-inclusion/cultural heritage tours; electric bike itineraries; and family/multi-generation plans.
CHALLENGES TO THE INDUSTRY
Adventure tourism like other types of tourism poses certain challenges, said Pearson, such as over tourism, bad behaviour by visitors, and a trend of movement of younger people from rural to urban areas. When managed properly however, she explained, adventure tourism diversifies source markets, disperses travellers across the whole country, including those rural areas, therefore providing financial opportunities for youths and promotes understanding. “Safety and destination management are paramount,” she warned.
It’s all about experience. Karma Lotey, of Yangphel Adventure Travel, which specializes in travel to Bhutan, said he’s seen a rise of sensory nature activities such as ancient traditional hot stone baths in Bhutan. In addition, there has been an increase in the number of tourists wanting to reconnect with nature, enjoy the star-lit sky and interact with the locals. In Bhutan, this may mean talking to monks or other villagers they come across.
In Sarawak, one of the experiences on offer is that of a gastronomic tour. Kuching, in Sarawak, has been named the first Creative City in Malaysia by Unesco, thanks to its unique food culture that melds indigenous ingredients and cooking styles with those imported from around the globe.
INFLUX OF WEALTH
Tourism done well not only benefits tourists but also gives new life to the economy of a country. In Malaysia’s Sarawak for example, responsible tourism has seen an increase in the number of houses offering homestay options to visitors; bringing in some financial relief to these homes. In addition, it has given added impetus to causes that help local lives. Kiew Boon Siew, Founder of Heart Treasures, for instance, talks about her NGO, which helps children and adults with special needs learn a life skill such as book or craft-making. These products are then sold to tourists; the visitors get a unique memory to take home while the maker of the product benefits financially.