The call for environmental protection is growing louder than ever, and
some tourism players have made it their mission to conserve natural habitats and
uplift native communities. TTG Asia finds out why this is so critical to tourism
From elephant rides and carbon footprints to dwindling wildlife population and habitat loss, the conversation about environmental protection is not a new one – but the Covid-19 pandemic is spotlighting the indelible links between tourism and nature.
According to Jim Sano, vice president, travel, tourism and conservation, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), tourism’s greatest dilemma is its contribution greenhouse gas emissions.
However, it is the pandemic’s economic devastation that has sounded the loudest environmental degradation alarm, adding to earlier warnings from other disasters such as “wildfires in California and Australia, the hurricanes in the South-eastern US, droughts in India, and melting glaciers in the Himalayas”.
“There are 60 countries where tourism is a top export earner and 150 countries where tourism is within the top five export earners. Globally, tourism is the third-largest industry and is the largest service sector employer. It is also the largest, global, market-based contributor to financing protected areas. So, there is incredible disruption as a result of the pandemic and global lockdown,” said Sano, adding that a combination of these world events has caused people to “look inwards and think about what is the root cause of pandemics and global warming. ”
Habitat conservationists speculate that Covid-19 is a zoonotic disease that crossed into the human environment as a result of increasing encroachment into wild areas, and have warned that continued habitat loss would result in more of such similar pandemics – and ensuing economic disruptions – occurring in the future.
Angela Foster-Rice, senior vice president, strategic business development, Everland, a company that monitors and supports several high impact forest and community conservation projects, remarked: “Covid-19 would not have happened if not for the way we have treated wildlife. It is essentially a dress rehearsal for the future climate crisis and the realisation that we will all need to work together and value nature above profits to address the challenge.”
Sano offers an even more prominent link between habitat loss and tourism: “With 80 percent of tourism spots in the world being within 60km of shorelines, the damaged marine environment will lead to a demise in the quality of the natural environment, and therein the quality of the traveller’s experience.”
Travel and tourism account for approximately eight percent of the world’s carbon emissions. Aviation alone contributes roughly 2.5 percent to the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, he pointed out, and it can account for up to 90 percent of trip emissions.
If travel and tourism stakeholders could do their part to conserve habitats and measure, reduce, and offset their emissions, these would “be the best steps to decarbonise their businesses”, opined Sano.
The good news is, conservation leaders are already working with some travel and tourism companies to make a positive change.
WWF has a range of past and present projects with major companies like Royal Caribbean Cruises, Hilton Worldwide, and Intrepid Group. The five-year partnership with the cruise company, commencing January 2016, involves ensuring the long-term health of the oceans through supply chain sustainability and emissions reduction efforts, while the three-year partnership with the hotel company, from 2015 to 2018, centred on sustainable initiatives in water, seafood, renewable energy, and food waste.
More recently, in May 2019 and in this part of the world, WWF China and online travel agency giant Ctrip formed a strategic alliance to enhance public awareness of biodiversity and transform travel products into vehicles that encourage meaningful contribution to the protection of the global environment.
“Travel industry executives are increasingly understanding that the health of their company and the quality of their travellers’ experience are dependent on conservation,” remarked Sano, adding that WWF’s work with some of the largest hospitality companies in the world allows it to achieve scale in its conservation objectives.
Everland’s notable conservation projects in Asia, specifically Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary (KSWS) and Southern Cardamom REDD+ (where sale of carbon credits funds forest and wildlife protection as well as facilitate sustainable improvements in community well-being) in Cambodia, benefit from tourism too.
The community-based Jahoo Gibbon Camp within the KSWS plays an ecotourism role, bringing in thousands of tourism dollars every year to fund life-improving community development for the indigenous Bunong people, shared Simon Mahood, senior technical advisor, WCS Cambodia which advises the Cambodian government in its protection of the sanctuary. This is in addition to travel and tourism companies coming in to support KSWS through carbon financing.
According to Mahood, it costs at least US$1 million a year to protect the KSWS, with money coming in from the local government, grants and carbon financing. Funding is used for critical work which includes securing and managing legal land titles for the indigenous Benong community; constructing basic community improvements such as toilets, wells and bridges; and wildlife protection and forest conservation.
“One of the things with conservation is that you never get to go home and say, well, it is done now. It is a lifetime’s work. However, our work with Keo Seima is progressing as we intended,” said Mahood, adding that some of the tangible accomplishments that kept his team going included a stabilised population of endangered black-shanked doucs and yellow-cheeked gibbons as well as “concrete improvements to the people’s life”.
While the pandemic has led to “significant and growing interest by governments to address conservation”, Foster-Rice noted that many of the countries with the largest unfragmented forests and biological diversity have limited resources to begin with, and are directing whatever they have to addressing the pandemic.
Another obstacle to conservation in Cambodia is the influx of citizens returning home without a job in the current economic climate, which has the potential to lead to logging and poaching, she said.
Fortunately, REDD+ projects have ensured economic stability and continued presence of social systems that reduce the pressure of conservation efforts during these challenging times, shared Foster-Rice.
Meanwhile, community-based tourism projects in the protected areas, like the aforementioned Jahoo Gibbon Camp as well as Chi Phat Ecotourism Village in the Cardamom Mountains and Steung Areng in the heart of the Cardamom Rainforest, are turning to the domestic travel market to keep tourism earnings rolling in the absence of international visitors.
Mahood noted “a growing number of locals eager to get out of the city to see nature and be somewhere different”.
“This crisis has awakened a strong desire to be with nature, and it helps that there is a great national pride to be able to support and appreciate the country’s own protected forests. I foresee this desire to last even when international borders reopen,” he said, adding that a series of bird-watching tours for beginners to the sanctuary has sold out like hot cakes, with a waiting list to boot.
Suwanna Gauntlett, CEO, Wildlife Alliance, which oversees the Chi Phat and Steung Areng ecotourism projects in Cambodia, said: “It is definitely a challenge today to support the communities through tourism. We are working hard at transferring the market segments from international to national, and fortunately we have an increase in visitorship.”
The downside, though, is that local visitors do not spend on the native community as much as their international counterparts, preferring to bring their own food, use their own tents or rent somebody’s land for the weekend, lamented Gauntlett.
Private sector takes action
Major hospitality organisations in Asia that have dedicated their business to nature are beginning to see the fruits of their labour.
On Mai Khao beach in Phuket, turtles have been returning nest after a decade of releases, and Minor Hotels Group is working with the Department of National Parks to certify all hotels along that beach based on their turtle-helping practices. Last year, Minor’s Holistic Approach to Reef Protection scientists rediscovered in the Maldives a healthy colony of a coral thought to be extirpated since the 1998 bleaching event.
Over at YAANA Ventures’ eco lodges, where the majority of the staff are locals, domestic communities have benefited from development and capacity building.
But even with these encouraging leaps, much effort is left to be desired. John Roberts, group director of sustainability & conservation, Minor Hotels Asia, expressed frustration at the issue of air and plastic pollution being “ignored by governments” in the region.
He explained: “Air pollution (is caused by) the crises in Northern Thailand, the fires from Indonesia and even the Australian bushfires. As for plastic pollution, in general the industry is waking up and reducing its dependence on single-use plastics. But when guests leave the hotels (they can still) notice plastic piling up by roadsides, washing down rivers and floating in canals. These things have an effect on the destination (but) seem to fly below the radar of government destination promoters and even the communities.
“The environment is our key product. People might enjoy staying in our beautiful hotels, but they choose the destination for the environment that surrounds them. A competitive destination will have a clean environment.”
The sentiment was echoed by Ewan Cluckie, global director of marketing, Discova. He lamented that mass tourism has boosted many countries in this part of the world “at the expense of the environment and their local communities”. In order for these economies to transition to a more sustainable tourism model, it would require not just private-sector initiatives, but also government intervention and enforcement of sustainable tourism policies.
“Costa Rica has shown the world that embracing sustainable tourism can be a successful model, providing that all players including governments closely work together towards this shared vision,” Cluckie said.
The task for tourists
As successful conservation requires contribution from all parties, travel companies have come up with programmes that nudge the consumer towards a greater understanding of ethical and sustainable travel.
For instance, YAANA Ventures brand Khiri Travel offers signature experiences such as picnic lunches with locals, who receive direct benefit from these immersive encounters. Its GROUND Asia initiatives also hosts students from Australia, the US and international schools in local communities, facilitating health and language programmes and raising awareness about environmental restoration.
Tourism can be harnessed as “a force for good” to proactively contribute to the protection of culture and nature, expressed Willem Niemeijer, CEO, YAANA Ventures. He added: “If tourists stay in a bubble, with their spending not benefiting the local community, or worse, damaging the environment, the opposite is true.”
Meanwhile, Discova has saved more than 14,500 kilograms in plastic waste through programmes such as providing reusable water bottles and biodegradable wet tissues in place of plastic-wrapped wet tissues. Additionally, as part of its Educational Travel Programs, the DMC integrates environmental protection initiatives into its in-destination experiences, such as mangrove replantation activities in Asia.
To pull this off, it has a dedicated Responsible Travel Working Group, which comprises staff from across the business who commit themselves to developing certain specialised areas of conservation and sustainability.
Cluckie described: “Conscious tourism and consumer awareness are some of the largest driving factors of change. Travellers who vote with their feet can drive retail players towards more responsible and ethical products. As a DMC, we give our partners solutions to these demands, we conduct audits to deliver transparency and accountability, and we carefully handpick the local businesses that we work with to ensure they are meeting certain standards.”
Now is the time
For advocates of responsible tourism, there is no better time than now to hit the ground running. The pandemic has presented a “reset button” for businesses to rethink the fundamentals, remarked Cluckie.
He explained: “I believe the global pandemic, while being an absolute tragedy for the industry and communities, can have a silver lining. (It can) be a catalyst for change, to drive industry players in a better direction without the excuse of damaging their bottom lines. It is a reset button that allows everyone working in travel to step back and look at the bigger picture, and consider how we all do things just a little bit better than we did before.”
YAANA Ventures’ Niemeijer agreed: “The tourism industry needs to get together behind the sustainability principles that have been laid out by many organisations, such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. (It should not be about) just paying lip service, but being a leader in implementation. Governments, in particular of developing countries, must take tourism seriously and set long-term goals, and not just cash in.”
However, the problem might be more severe in the short term, cautioned Roberts. The limited international mobility due to travel restrictions is likely to cause aggressive competition. He urged destinations to reconsider pursuing large-scale projects that might be damaging to the environment, such as new infrastructure, airports or railways.
He explained: “People will not be travelling in the numbers we saw last year for a very long time. Even if the world becomes safe again, the economic damage means that there will be a cut in the luxury of long-haul travel. So, there will be far greater competition to attract tourists to a destination.
“If we’re already seeing how booking is more spur-of-the-moment, a bad review about air pollution, a dirty beach or even damage caused by a lack of climate resilience will be able to divert business away like never before. We need to ensure all understand this reality and are prepared to guard against it.”
He suggested working with local communities to provide unique experiences and cuisine that is not available in the capital and other regional cities, as well as sustainable destination planning through re-educating tourism-related employees in roles that support more sustainable tourism operations.
There is a crystal-clear case for sustainable travel and tourism but should the message continue to fall on deaf ears, perhaps an investment argument might work.
Sano pointed out that “financial institutions, like Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, are now implementing policies that will see them invest more in sustainable companies”.
“This figures prominently for the travel industry because developers need access to financing,” stated Sano.
Since establishing the UOB Real Estate Sustainable Finance Framework in October 2019, Singapore-based multinational banking organisation, United Overseas Bank (UOB), has issued green loans to two hospitality companies. In February 2020, the bank issued a S$237 million green loan – the largest green loan to a hotel property by a single financial institution – to Park Hotel Group for the re-financing of Grand Park City Hall. In July, it granted S$120 million in green loan to UOL Group for the redevelopment of Pan Pacific Orchard.
“Such support helps to position Singapore for a future where sustainable tourism is given more focus,” said Lam Li Min, head of real estate and hospitality, sector solutions group, UOB.
As part of the green loan agreement, the borrower’s asset must meet the required local or international sustainable building certification standard; proceeds from the loan must be deployed either to develop or acquire a green building or to retrofit an existing building so that it meets green building
certification standards; and the borrower must ensure that it continues to meet the requirements of the green loan, such as to comply with the necessary reporting requirements.
When asked how effective green loans are as a motivator for tourism developers to work sustainable practices into their business plans, Lam said deploying an environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategy would result in lower operation costs over the long term as well as access to non-real estate sustainability-linked loans with reduced interest rates if pre-determined sustainable performance targets are achieved. At the same time, tourism companies could also win over consumers, particularly millennials, who are showing greater preference for sustainable products.
The UOB ASEAN Consumer Sentiment Study found that more than half of consumers in five ASEAN markets support brands with sustainable practices and that one in three millennials in Singapore are willing to pay more for sustainable products.
Deep dive: Southern Cardamom REDD+ Project and Cardamom Tented Camp
Cambodia’s Botum Sakor National Park has been through the wringer. Since its 1,712.5 km² grounds were established in 1993, it has lost more than 229 km² of evergreen forest to illegal logging; 1,190 km² to construction, agriculture and industrial projects; and endangered animal species to local poachers and wildlife traffickers.
Though the depletion of park land still continues today, one project has intervened to stem the damage. Cardamom Tented Camp is a three-way initiative between The Minor Group, YAANA Ventures and Wildlife Alliance that has returned life to the threatened Cardamom Mountains.
Set up in November 2017 in the Trapeang Rung region, the camp comprises nine safari tents where guests are treated to a completely off-the-grid stay in the heart of nature. The solar-powered camp produces zero waste and is non-plastic, and keeps a 180 km² concession area out of the hands of loggers, poachers and sand dredging operations.
John Roberts, group director of sustainability & conservation, Minor Hotels Asia, remarked that the team has made “unthinkable” wildlife sightings from the mountain river. Willem Niemeijer, CEO, YAANA Ventures, described: “The result is an almost-complete absence of illegal logging and poaching, (leading to) a return of plentiful wildlife that can be observed by our guests.
“We support the Wildlife Alliance through salary subsidies and improvements in ranger stations, (and) aside from the lodge manager, the entire team is Cambodian, with most coming from the local community.”
By discouraging hunting and logging practices in this area, the project had to offer a viable alternative source of income for locals. Roberts shared: “(We provide) income to local community members – through direct employment, products and services – that would otherwise rely on some form of poaching for income.”
Recalling the initial days of intervention 20 years ago, Suwanna Gauntlett, CEO, Wildlife Alliance, said the “state of the rainforest was really dismal” and that it was all silent. “A lot of farmers were doing slash-and-burn. Now, where we are working with the local communities, slash-and-burn has completely disappeared and the wild population has visibly recovered. There is hope when you take action in the field.”
A stay at Cardamom Tented Camp can last from three to four days. Guests with the shorter “Trekker” package may join a patrol with the Wildlife Alliance Rangers through the dense Cambodian jungle, visiting abandoned poaching and logging trails as well as the Ranger Station, where confiscated snares and improvised weapons are on display. Besides kayaking down the Preak Tachan River, “Trekkers” may also join a Khmer cooking class or embark on a self-guided hike to catch a glimpse of rare local wildlife, such as macaques, gibbons and hornbills.
The “Explorer” and “Jungle Camp” packages run to four days, giving guests more time to discover the surrounding evergreen forests. “Explorers” have the option to accompany rangers on more adventurous patrols to the most remote parts of the national park, while “Jungle Camp” guests will enjoy a night in the thick of the jungle.
On top of these packages, guests may choose to supplement their stay with a Birdwatcher Package. Here, guests will embark on a Birding Program through the Cardamom rainforest, led by a specialist birding expert and a guide.
Surviving the downturn
Since the onset of Covid-19, guest activity at the camp has slowed down considerably, but the team has still kept busy. During the initial lockdown in Cambodia, the lodge was shut for three months, during which it dove into training and renovation works, including the installation of a new zip line that will open new trail routes and facilitate ranger patrols, shared Niemeijer.
“Since our reopening on July 1, the camp has received an encouraging number of Cambodian and expat guests. As is the case in other countries, the stays are concentrated around long weekends and holidays, and help us continue to employ a core team and ensure the upkeep of the camp.
“The awareness and enjoyment of nature on a local level is encouraging and we intend to keep working on the domestic market once the borders open,” he said.
Roberts noted that the camp is receiving a dividend of guests who had been “cooped up in Phnom Penh for months and are in need of green spaces”. Unfortunately, as the current occupancy levels are inadequate to support the rangers, Cardamom Tented Camp has opened up to donations to keep things afloat.
Niemeijer expressed: “We can only hope for the restart of tourism, even if just regional, to keep our doors open and the concession out of the hands of poachers and loggers.”
A greener future
With consumers likely to select destinations far from the crowds once travel resumes, Cardamom Tented Camp is hoping to bank on its forested seclusion as a stronger selling point than before. This may drive more guests into its land, anticipated Roberts.
He said: “Pre-Covid, we were appealing to environmentally conscious travellers with an interest in conservation and nature and who were not seeking crowds. I think Covid has emphasised the need for this sort of space and, if anything, will have made people think more about it rather than less. Where else can you potentially get 10 km² of jungle to yourself?”
Likewise, Niemeijer expressed hope that environmentally conscious destinations, especially in remote areas, will recover faster than mass travel hotspots. Once international travel returns, Cardamom Tented Camp will see greater expansion of its activities, as well as the number of tents on site.
For now, the team is engaging with its customer base through social media, wielding it as an assurance that “protection work continues unabated – both through the Cardamom Tented Camp and the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation”, said Roberts.
With any luck, YAANA Ventures hopes to replicate its conservation efforts to protect jungle and wildlife in other parts of Cambodia, shared Niemeijer.