Recognising the high-yield, low-impact benefits of ecotourism, governments in South-east Asia are now putting serious efforts to develop this niche market by including sustainable and responsible travel in national planning policies.
At the regional level, the first-ever ASEAN Ecotourism Forum (AEF) which took place in Pakse, Laos last week saw the adoption of the Pakse Declaration, which will lead to a roadmap for the strategic development of ecotourism clusters and tourism corridors.
Speaking during the AEF, Frans Teguh, director of infrastructure development & tourism ecosystem at Indonesian Ministry of Tourism, sees “big potential for marine tourism” and projects ecotourism to contribute to 10 per cent of the country’s tourism market within the next five years.
The Indonesian government will integrate ecotourism into the national masterplan this year, in addition to identifying destinations like Toba Lake, Labuan Bajo and Mandalika as priority areas for ecotourism development. As well, a special pavilion dedicated to sustainable tourism will debut at PATA Travel Mart this year, Frans told TTG Asia e-Daily on the sidelines of the forum.
The Malaysia National Ecotourism Plan 2016-2015 will be using the cluster approach – i.e. grouping a critical mass of competitive and/or complementary tourism products in a geographical area – as a planning tool to foster integration, informed Amran Hamzah, a professor in tourism planning and director of the Centre of Innovative Planning and Development at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.
While he declined to reveal more details of the plan at press time as the strategy was still undergoing discussion, Amran said that it will seek to avoid earlier weak points in the National Ecotourism Plan 1996 such as the absence of “buy in” from the private sector.
For Thailand’s minister of tourism & sports Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, bringing standards at ecological sites, national parks and historical cultural centres to international levels is a key concern. Besides working with global organisations like UNWTO to pursue internationally recognised standards, the Tourism Authority of Thailand has rolled out the Seven Greens campaign to promote responsible travel and destinations, she revealed.
Many areas still need the strong support of governments in the ecotourism development field though, industry stakeholders pointed out at the AEF.
Owing to the “high startup costs” in ecotourism ventures, Asian Development Bank’s senior portfolio management specialist of Lao PDR Resident Mission, Steven Schipani, urged governments to proactively identify viable tourism projects and provide stronger destination marketing in order to lend a helping hand for SME entrepreneurs in this niche sector.
Meanwhile, Xu Jing, regional director for Asia and the Pacific, would like to see more open visa policies. “Unless visa issues are facilitated and seriously taken up by governments, ecotourism benefits cannot be fully realised,” he remarked.