“The Future of Tourism” Interview Series
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the interviews are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or views of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) or any of its employees. The aim of the interviews is to assist with the rapid, robust and responsible rebuilding of the Asia Pacific travel industry.
Exacerbating a traumatic human health cost, COVID-19 is reeking economic devastation. Travel and tourism across the Asia-Pacific region are particularly heavily impacted. Most distressing is the biggest impacts are on our most vulnerable communities and habitats.
COVID-19 is believed to have passed from wild animals to humans through the wildlife trade, exacerbated by the unprecedented destruction of wild habitats by human activity. Such practices can no longer be ignored.
Tourism recovery then must not just be a resumption of the status quo. Instead it is an opportunity to address underlying environmental and social issues resulting in destruction of wild habitats. The tourism industry can also help by working with government and the public sector to actively combat the illegal wildlife trade.
Indeed, this is a ‘wakeup call’ to the travel and tourism industry to act now, as more crisis are on the horizon.
PATA SSR talked to Jedsada Taweekan, Regional Manager for Illegal Wildlife Trade of the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF), to explore the huge impact of Covid-19 on people and wildlife, what tourism can do to mitigate the risk of zoonotic diseases transmission and how to establish safety guidelines that protect both animals and people at destinations.
Q: Hello Jesse, thank you so much for spending time with us today! We are very excited to have you with PATA in this interview. First of all, for the benefits of our audience, would you mind introducing a bit about yourself, the work you are doing with WWF and your areas of focus and expertise?
Jesse: Thanks for having me. My name is Jedsada Taweekan. I’m the Illegal Wildlife Trade Program Manager with WWF Greater Mekong. Basically, I cover five countries in the Greater Mekong region including Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar and coordinate with overall regional projects on illegal wildlife trade. As you know, wildlife trade is a transnational issue, it is not just one country’s problem. We have to work together towards a regional and coordinated approach. Before working with WWF, I was working with the US Agency for International Development for 11 years. I was looking over the illegal wildlife trade, from the source to the destination countries. So, starting from Africa to Southeast Asia; trafficking to Vietnam, China and other East Asian countries. I’ve been working in this area for almost 10 years. So, I have seen a lot of changes, the trends change all the time on the local wildlife trade.
I’ve been working with WWF for almost two years with a focus on Thailand and also broader at the greater Mekong region. We work a lot on demand reduction, including working with tourism sector. We also work with law enforcement, specifically building capacity of law enforcement to counter wildlife trafficking. Last but not least, we also work with the Ministry level and the policymakers trying to change the law to follow up with the trends that keep changing all the time.
Q: With the current situation of COVID-19 as a global crisis, why does animal welfare and wildlife protection matter when many people lives are at risk?
Jesse: Actually, I would like to broaden the question a little bit. It’s not just about animal welfare, it also includes the wildlife conservation and illegal trade aspects. As you know, COVID-19 is spilled over from the wildlife trade. It is one of the diseases that jump from animals to human. And this is not the first time we’ve seen this kind of situation. We saw SARS in 2002, MERS in 2012 and right now COVID-19 in 2020. SARS started from civet cats, MERS from camel;
and now, people speculated that COVID-19 started from bats that went to human through pangolins. I’m not sure if you know that pangolin is the most trafficked mammal in the world. It’s one of the delicacies that in China or some East Asian countries, people believe that it’s a kind of luxury and high-status food that people would like to consume. That is why it creates demand and pushes the wildlife trade to happen. So, it’s important to look into the suffering of the sector; wildlife trade is not only happening now, it has been happening for a very long time. If we do not stop it, it will have repercussions in the future.
Again, it’s not just wildlife trade but we have to look into the wildlife habitat. Because of the urban expansion and development, the habitat of wildlife is shrinking. This puts pressures on wildlife to come closer to human and civilizations. So, both the trade and the shrinking habitat causes the virus to jump to human easily because in normal situation, wildlife spread over in big habitat and they’re not confined to small particular places. If human beings bring them into small and confined places, you can see these kinds of diseases jumping around and eventually coming to human. So, when we take a look into the situation of COVID-19, we need to look at the public health issues. It needs to be a holistic approach, right? Wildlife conservation is important, but you need to look into the human health aspect as well. We need to work holistically with doctors and within the wildlife conservation segment. Tourism can play a very important role in wildlife conservation. Personally, I went to Chon Buri last week and I saw lots of amazing wildlife. I’m sure that this can be one of the things that our tourism sector can tap into in the future, after the COVID-19 situation is controlled.
Q: Many Asian countries have banned live animal markets and wildlife trade such as Vietnam and China, but illegal wildlife trade still happens. What opportunities do you see that the COVID-19 crisis can bring to reinforce and accelerate the acts against illegal wildlife trade?
Jesse: As you know, Vietnam recently put ban on illegal wildlife trade, which is very good news. Not only Vietnam, China has also banned illegal wildlife trade before that. But the bans are temporary in both countries, so we hope that in the future they will put on a permanent ban. We also hope other countries to follow Vietnam and China to ban illegal wildlife trade. COVID-19 is an unfortunate situation but it also presents opportunities to restart and advocate policymakers to look into stopping illegal wildlife trade. And as I mentioned, it’s not just about conservation, it’s also about human health issues. If people understand the threats from illegal wildlife trade and consider their health and the health of their loved ones, they will try to reduce the risk. As I mentioned earlier, when wildlife is packed into a very small confined space, it is easier for zoonotic diseases to jump around, eventually jumping to people.
I think it’s a very important and good opportunity for countries to refocus on stopping or banning illegal wildlife trade. Different countries have different levels and different types of wildlife trade; for example, in Thailand, it’s mostly pet trade and you can see in the jungle, there are lots of exotic animals. For some countries, the problem is more about using wildlife as food. So how can we distinguish that and propose some solutions? That’s what we need to discuss with policymakers and how we can work on that together. As I mentioned, the situation is not only happening now but if we are not trying to stop it, it will keep happening again in the future so we must learn from the situation and make sure it’s not going to happen again.
Q: If we look at tourism industry, now that traveling has actually become a means of transmission of COVID-19, what should be the lessons learned here for tourism destinations?
Jesse: Tourism can play a very big role in wildlife conservation. For example, Thailand is one of the countries with very rich biodiversity. When tourists come to Thailand, lots of people want to go to wildlife safaris and national parks. You see a lot of tourism activities with focus on wildlife in south of Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia, so I believe tourism can play a very big role. That means that we want to work with partners in tourism sectors; for example, PATA has lots of members, so PATA can pass through information and standards that the tourism and travel industry can follow regarding wildlife protection practices. We need to think about the different standards, what kind of wildlife conservation standard and what kind of inferential activities travelers can do. I believe if we can work with the tourism sector, we can change people’s perception and behaviors.
For examples, we work with tour guide associations in five greater Mekong countries. We are now working with professional tour guide association of Thailand and the Vietnamese tour guide association. Basically, tour guides are the ones who take tourist to various destination and sometimes tourists want to get some kind of exotic wildlife souvenirs like ivory or tiger parts. If we can work with tour guides, they will be the agents of change. So, tour guides can provide knowledge for tourists not to buy those kinds of things or not to support illegal wildlife trade. At the same time, we also need to think about the commissions tour guides often receive from the shop or from tourists themselves. So how can we deal with that? That’s the thing we want to work with PATA or some other leading agencies or associations how we can turn them to become agents of change. That’s what we really look forward to working further on in the future.
Q: Moving forward, how do you envision the future of wildlife tourism and conservation in a post COVID-19 world?
Jesse: Tourism is a big and bright spot. When we think about tourism, people often look into culture, traditions, shopping etc. Wildlife has not been a big highlight yet, compared to others; so, I think we can promote more sustainable tourism, ecotourism and we can work more with local villages and communities. If you talk about wildlife in landscape areas, we can work with communities residing there, we can train them to become tour guide, or open homestay for people to get authentic experiences. So, we can promote more than just the current practices that we have. And we can also train those local people to become, as I mentioned, agents of change on wildlife protection and conservation.
Q: How can the tourism industry contribute to building a better future for wildlife conservation?
Jesse: One of the things that WWF is working on is to build capacity of wildlife enforcement network. It’s a group that focuses on wildlife conservation and wildlife anti-trafficking. We work with the Department of Forestry, national park, custom police, etc. and do patrolling to ensure there is no poaching. Because of lockdown and people are ordered to stay at home, that’s an opportunity for poachers so we are working with wildlife enforcement network groups to patrol the areas just to make sure that there is no poaching situation. And moving forward, tourism and travel industry can be part of this. We need to open national park for wildlife conservation, foster sustainable tourism for people to go visit the areas in a responsible manner and enact law enforcement for wildlife protection and conservation.