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For travel businesses across the Asia-Pacific region, the pandemic has been a solid punch to the gut. Stricter-than-average travel restrictions and severely constricted inbound flights have led to an 82 percent decrease in Asia-Pacific arrivals from January to October 2020, and equally devastating job losses and revenue downturns.
And yet a silver lining persists: Authorities believe the slowdown presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to deconstruct the travel industry, “building back better” towards a more sustainable tourism model that delivers fairly to all stakeholders.
“Sustainability must no longer be a niche part of tourism, but must be the new norm for every part of our sector,” explains United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) secretary-general Zurab Pololikashvili. “It is in our hands to transform tourism and that emerging from COVID-19 becomes a turning point for sustainability.”
The response to this call has been as diverse as the region itself, from Thailand and the Philippines’ promotion of travel to the countries' peripheries to the Mekong Region’s support of sustainable travel businesses.
Mekong Incubator Nurtures Sustainable Tourism Businesses
When it was originally conceived as a tourism business incubator four years ago, (Mekong Innovations in Sustainable Tourism (MIST) was tasked with helping startups around the Mekong River solve tourism problems unique to the subregion.
For example, 2018 winner BambooLao reduces single-plastic use in the Mekong by producing reusable bamboo straws for use in hotels and restaurants. Women in Lao village harvest and finish the dainty straws, packaging them in colorful recycled-paper containers.
“[BambooLao creates] job opportunities, protects the environment, and brings communities together,” says BambooLao founder Khoungkhakoune Arounothay. She used the $10,000 innovation grant provided by MIST to scale up production from one to three villages, increasing their capacity to meet growing international demand.
With the pandemic-induced downtown, MIST has expanded its scope to adapt. Instead of limiting its assistance to startups, MIST now accepts nominations for any operating business or project that drives sustainable tourism and resilience in the Mekong Subregion.
Contenders are expected to help solve a series of travel sustainability issues, including (but not limited to) regional connectivity between destinations in the Greater Mekong Subregion, better payments models throughout the travel value chain (B2C and B2B), enhanced customer experiences in travel and hospitality, reduced environmental impact, and solutions for overdevelopment and overtourism.
Finalists will be given exclusive access to hackathons and boot camps, and be exposed to a wider network of investors, mentors, incubators, government officials, and fellow businesses.
"Helping these innovative and passionate entrepreneurs to get exposure and mentorship is especially important for ventures in countries in the Mekong Region that normally don’t get as much attention," explains Jens Thraenhart, CEO of the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office (MTCO) supervising MIST.
Some of the connections built by MIST winners can be surprisingly stratospheric. I Love Asia Tour’s victory in 2017 attracted the attention of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who asked to meet the company’s CEO Nguyen Thi Huong Lien on her visit to Vietnam.
Nominations for 2021 contenders are currently being accepted until April 31, 2021. A jury taken from the Mekong Tourism Advisory Group and global venture capital fund Seedstars will judge the final pitches at a MIST Forum in Bangkok, scheduled for the second half of 2021.
Farm Tourism Creates New Opportunities in the Philippines
Before 2020, Southeast Asia’s tourism spots were bursting at the seams. Popular tourist destinations like Boracay in the Philippines were shut down after degradation by excessive tourist activity.
Concerned about the cultural and environmental degradation brought about by overtourism—and given unexpected breathing space by tourism lockdowns—the Philippines’ Department of Tourism (DOT) has accelerated a longtime advocacy of its Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat: farm tourism, the transformation of promising farms into tourist destinations.
Championed by Romulo-Puyat when she was still an undersecretary at the Department of Agriculture, farm tourism is designed to solve multiple issues in one fell swoop: relieving overtourism pressure by diverting tourism to the peripheries, expanding the Philippines’ tourism portfolio, and boosting the beleaguered agricultural sector.
“Farm tourism holds the promise of food sufficiency and additional income for tourism stakeholders, including farmers, farm workers and fisherfolk,” Romulo-Puyat explains. “Harnessed properly, it can be an important pillar for employment, productivity and ensuring sustainable livelihoods.”
So far, 105 farm tourism sites have been accredited by the DOT and provided with additional funding and training. One of the main beneficiaries is the municipality of Bauko: Its cool highland climate, scenic surroundings, and variety of farm-related activities have made this Mountain Province town a promising addition to the Philippines’ top tourist sights.
“In Bauko, we’ve combined farm tourism and eco-tourism,” explains Mylyn Maitang, an officer at the Bauko tourism office. “It’s a diverse municipality—in Upper Bauko, we focus on vegetable farms, fruit farms, strawberry farms. In Lower Bauko, we have rice terraces, and we're also selling locally-made products.”
Bauko is part of a bigger farm tourism circuit in Benguet and the Mountain Province. Visitors can visit mainstream locations like Baguio City, the Batad Rice Terraces, and Sagada before driving over to nearby Bauko and the surrounding municipalities of Abatan, Buguias, and La Trinidad. There, they can enjoy respective hiking trails, vegetable farms, strawberry fields, and handicraft centers.
Mylyn Maitang believes all the pieces are falling into place for a boom in sustainable tourism once the lockdowns end. “We have lots of requests that we can’t accommodate now because of restrictions, but we’re developing more programs beside farm tours,” Mylyn tells TripSavvy. “We already have two DOT-accredited homestays, with nine more in Lower Bauko soon—with Mount Data Hotel reopening, we’ll have plenty of room to stay in Bauko.”
For more on tourism in Bauko, Mountain Province, visit the municipality’s tourism page on Facebook.
In Thailand, Community Based Tourism Leads the Way
Thailand is in quite a bind. On one hand, tourism comprised 11 percent of the country’s GDP prior to 2020, a figure that dropped precipitously in the past year. On the other, overtourism has bedeviled Thailand’s top tourist sites; the 2018 closure of Maya Bay was seen as a portent of things to come, if tourism was not managed in the years ahead.
Like the Philippines, Thailand is counting on the peripheries to save Thai tourism, giving community-based tourism (CBT) pride of place in its post-2021 tourism recovery plan.
CBT is tourism that goes to local grassroots: Visitors are taken to rural areas with a distinct, well-preserved culture, and given a hands-on experience of the local way of life. Participating communities benefit from tourism income that can be invested in local education, infrastructure, and healthcare; meanwhile, tourists are treated to an off-the-beaten path experience that can’t be beat in terms of authenticity and atmosphere.
The Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration (DASTA) is the Thai Kingdom's key driver in promoting sustainable tourism. The administration’s portfolio includes CBT projects in Koh Chang, Pattaya, Sukhothai, Loei, Nan, and Suphan Buri, with more projects planned for rural border communities.
In December 2020, the Thai government unveiled a model tour for future CBT plans, one based on existing canals and waterways. The model tour is located in Ratchaburi Province; its four stops— Chotikaram Temple, Jek Huat's house, Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, and Mae Thongyip Agricultural Garden—can all be explored by boat along a single route.
More CBT plans will be launched in the next year or so. "We will launch 40 community-based tourism packages that have passed through this program with the private sector," says DASTA’s director of community-based tourism development, Wanvipa Phanumat. "Hopefully, after the COVID-19 crisis, there will be lots of domestic and international travelers coming... they will have the choices to go to the local communities that have been included in those packages."
In the meantime, more work needs to be done to upgrade CBT sites in Thailand—and “build back better” with sustainability in mind. “This crisis is a rare chance for the tourism industry to have a break and look back at... the important things that we need to do in terms of sustainable development,” says Wanvipa. “This is also a test for the community’s resilience and how they’re going to survive after the crisis.”
DASTA manages a comprehensive website where visitors can see all its projects in one place. To view DASTA’s community-based tourism destinations and find booking information for each spot, visit CBT Thailand's website.
WorldTourism Organization. "2020: Worst Year in Tourism History with 1 Billion Fewer International Arrivals." January 28, 2021.
Manila Bulletin. "DA, DOT to further boost farm tourism." August 14, 2020.
Reuters. "Thailand's December tourist arrivals down 99.8% y/y to 6,500." January 25, 2021.