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Asia expects dramatic rise in 'regenerative' tourism

Experts say travel will become greener and more tailored

A visitor at the Cardamom Tented Camp, an ecotourism-focused resort in Cambodia, explores nearby waters by kayak. (Courtesy of Yaana Ventures)

BANGKOK -- In a model demonstration of tourism's potential to balance nature and humans, part of the cost of staying at the Six Senses Ninh Van Bay hotel in Vietnam is earmarked to support a nearby community of endangered black-shanked douc langur monkeys. Catching a glimpse of them on a hike has become part of the thrill at the resort. The irony now, amid COVID-19 travel restrictions, is that tourists have become the endangered species.

In 2019 the travel and tourism industry accounted for 10.3% of global gross domestic product and employed 330 million people, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council's latest Economic Impact & Global Trends report. This year, though, it feels as though travelers are outnumbered by the staff of myriad organizations -- many now grouped in the Future of Tourism Coalition -- dedicated to formulating how, where and why it will be best for them (and the planet) to travel again.

When, and in what manner, travelers will take to the road again is the subject of a high-stakes global guessing game. Much will depend on the development of an effective and widely available vaccine against the virus that causes COVID-19. But most experts predict big changes. "The new normal for travel will require a paradigm shift," says Masaru Takayama, a founding chair of the Asian Ecotourism Network.

Organizations focused on Asia expect the biggest transformation to happen here -- in a continent that used to be known largely for its "follow the flag" tour groups, voracious bargain hunters and misuse of ecotourism labels. "Educated people everywhere are reflecting on better ways to travel," says Randy Durband, CEO of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, who is currently based in Seoul. "The new wave of Chinese travelers will be a major force, as they are growing more sophisticated. They want authenticity."

More importantly, Durband says there is an "increasing political will to implement policies" among nearly all the region's governments. "The pandemic is showing them just how important tourism is to their economies, but also the pause is allowing them to build capacity and training, so they can enforce good intentions. They see how fragile are their assets and they are also doing a lot with community-based tourist sites -- 350 in Cambodia alone."

A view of the Cardamom Tented Camp, operated by Bangkok-based Yaana Ventures: "Luxury for the sake of luxury is boring," says Yaana Ventures founder Willem Niemeijer. "The new luxury is to be more remote." (Courtesy of Yaana Ventures)

Takayama believes that COVID-19 quarantine requirements have merely "accelerated a trend that really got kick-started by the wake-up call of closing and cleaning up Boracay," an island tourism hot spot in the Philippines that was closed for rehabilitation in April 2018 and which reopened this month. The Philippines' decision was followed later in 2018 by the cleanup of Maya Bay, a tourist attraction on the Thai island of Phi Phi Leh, which is expected to remain closed until 2021.

The two islands are not alone in cleaning up their act, according to the 2019 Global Sustainable Destinations Top 100 list, which is restricted to locales that have taken significant action to fight environmental stress. These include Pemuteran, a fishing village on the Indonesian resort island of Bali that has revived dying coral reefs; Nglanggeran, an Indonesian town near Yogyakarta that has built an ecotourism business around the reforestation of an ancient volcanic area; Tmatboey, a community that has fought environmental destruction to become Cambodia's leading spot for bird-watching; and Taiwan's ecologically run, carbon-footprint reducing Northeast and Yilan Coast National Scenic Area.

Successes such as these could point the way to a post-pandemic shift in Asian tourism, perhaps along the lines of Bangkok-based Yaana Ventures' Cardamom Tented Camp in Cambodia, where tourism revenue supports 12 forest rangers fighting poachers and loggers, or the Anurak Community Lodge for low-impact activities like kayaking in southern Thailand's Khao Sok National Park.

Top: Beachgoers take a selfie on the Philippine island of Boracay in 2018. The beaches at the tourism hot spot were closed for rehabilitation later that year and reopened in October. (AP Photo) Bottom: In Cambodia, tourism revenue generated by the Cardamom Tented Camp supports 12 forest rangers fighting poachers and loggers. (Courtesy of Yaana Ventures)

Despite the uncertainties, Yaana founder Willem Niemeijer says he has 15 more remote lodges "in the pipeline" and believes there is "commercial room for hundreds in the Southeast Asian region." Of course, Niemeijer concedes, "people have a short-term memory, and things may go back to the same in a few years. But it would be insane to repeat the same mistakes of bigger hotels, bigger airports, crowding tourists into big hubs. Luxury for the sake of luxury is boring, the new luxury is to be more remote."

To that end, experts have moved on to a new buzzword, replacing the requirement for destinations to become "sustainable" with a call for travel that is "regenerative." In the aftermath of global contagion, the new term sounds both healing and optimistic.

"'Sustainable' now seems like maintaining the status quo, something required for a stock market listing, managing your assets well like any company would do, whether the natural world or not," says Jeff Smith, vice-president of sustainability at the Six Senses resort chain. "'Regenerative' means giving back more than you take. Adding to the environment or communities, changing lives."

A room at the Cardamom Tented Camp. (Courtesy Yaana Ventures)

Such goals may not be achievable overnight, especially as Durband admits that "many businesses will be fighting for survival, focused on germs and disinfectants and downsizing, with many false starts ahead." But nearly all experts and organizational spokespeople agree on the general outlines of this brave new world of journeying.

With airline prices going up, in part because of social distancing requirements, people will most likely travel less frequently and with more care. "While travel may be more of a hassle, with more perceived risks," points out Smith, "people will want to justify the effort by being less frivolous, seeking more meaning."

They may also continue the current trend of sticking closer to home, discovering more of their own domestic attractions. At his remote and necessarily rustic Cardamom resort, says Niemeijer, "We're getting more and more Cambodians, a bit of a surprise! And less flying will be good for the environment."

Solar panels at the Cardamom camp. (Courtesy of Yaana Ventures)

Post-COVID-19 adventurers may also continue to favor private transport and accommodations over anything involving groups -- though some predict that the popularity of Airbnb and its competitors may be undermined by requirements for standardized hygiene procedures. Trips will undoubtedly be more private and more about family time, with less emphasis on shared activities and shared spaces like restaurants -- and of course, more emphasis on well-being. And guests are expected to favor natural locations.

Such projections make advocates of ecological standards nervous about how to manage larger numbers and the degradation caused by too many cars. But, says Takayama, "People are no longer thinking of 'sustainable' as something to apply in a few places, but all over."

Planning ahead in catering to travelers who will, in Smith's phrase, "care more and want to learn more," the Six Senses chain is going beyond earmarking revenues for good causes to developing "reconnection" programs -- so guests can participate in bringing water to poor rural communities or voyages to help track manta rays or turtle eggs in the Maldives. At Anurak Lodge guests can plant sapling trees to combat the environmental damage caused by a palm oil plantation.

Smith says he remains hopeful that the COVID-19 crisis will prove "a turning point" for humanity. "Having been forced to sit in our rooms and think about what we want out of our lives, we may come out of this with more purpose," he says.

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