October 1, 2022
Tourism slowly returns to South-East Asia, but should it be business as usual?- BPN TODAY

Tourism slowly returns to South-East Asia, but should it be business as usual?

When the world stood still in March 2020 and tourists disappeared from the ancient stone walkways of Angkor Wat, Cambodian tour operator Sareth Duch’s nightmare began.

“This is something everybody still has in mind, even now we’re still trying to heal,” Duch said.

As the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic halted international tourism, Duch looked for a way to keep his decade-old tourism and hospitality business afloat.

“We decided to convert our [tourist] restaurant to local, so we sold Khmer food and we kept our workforce in service,” he said.

For nearly a year, earnings from the restaurant and savings kept staff employed.

When tourists still hadn’t returned by mid-2021, Duch said he began letting staff go with the promise they would be called back when international tourism resumed.

But despite the borders reopening to vaccinated travellers last November, the tourism industry in Cambodia – like much of South-East Asia – continues to suffer.

Data released by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) in early August showed international tourism in the Asia Pacific region was experiencing the slowest recovery of anywhere in the world.

While international arrivals in Europe are down 30 percent on 2019 levels, in the Asia Pacific region they are down 90 percent.

The region’s slow recovery is mostly due to its dependence on Chinese tourists, who are still unable to travel because of China’s current Covid-19 travel policies.

This picture taken on 8 April 2022 shows tourists visiting the Angkor Wat temple complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in Siem Reap province.

Tourists at the Angkor Wat temple complex in April this year. Photo: AFP

Return to business as usual?

Before the pandemic, tourism across the Asia Pacific was thriving, with international arrivals in the region growing on average 7 percent per year for a decade, according to the UNWTO.

While the boom was good for business, endless arrivals were spoiling the integrity of must-see destinations and beginning to threaten the very survival of places like Angkor Wat, Indonesia’s Borobudur and Thailand’s famed Maya Bay.

Mass tourism and hotel development around Angkor Wat temple draws on groundwater which is risking the stability of the ancient structures sitting above the shrinking water table.

The blindingly white sands and turquoise water of Maya Bay – the cove made famous by the film The Beach – was closed by authorities in 2018 after a tourist onslaught destroyed much of the coral and sea life and contributed to erosion of the beach.

When it comes to tourism in Asia, Fergus Maclaren, president of the International Cultural Tourism Committee, said a number of questions needed to be asked: Who was benefiting? What was the impact on the local environment? And what was the quality of experience?

“The social impacts, the environmental impacts, the cultural impacts really begin to place a toll on the wellbeing and the health of the environment and local communities,” Maclaren said.

The pandemic travel restrictions were seen by many in the industry as an opportunity to rethink tourism and implement more sustainable management, he said.

But as tourists begin to return, pressure is mounting.

In April, just four months after reopening to foreign tourists, the Philippines government said local authorities had failed to control the number of people arriving at the once pristine beach paradise of Boracay.

Like Maya Bay, Boracay was temporarily closed in 2018 by president Rodrigo Duterte (who called the place a “cesspool”) to allow the environment to recover.

When Maya Bay reopened to tourists in January, visitors could no longer swim in its waters and numbers were limited to several hundred an hour.

Just four months later, local press reported that the government announced the bay would need to close again for two months for further rehabilitation.

A crowd of tourists on the Maya Bay beach on 9 April 2018, on the southern Thai island of Koh Phi Phi. - Across the region, Southeast Asia's once-pristine beaches are reeling from decades of unchecked tourism as governments scramble to confront trash-filled waters and environmental degradation without puncturing a key economic driver. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP) / TO GO WITH AFP STORY "THAILAND-INDONESIA-PHILIPPINES-TOURISM-ENVIRONMENT" by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA with Joe FREEMAN

A crowd of tourists on the Maya Bay beach on 9 April 2018, on the southern Thai island of Koh Phi Phi. Photo: AFP

Controversy at Komodo National Park

Nearby in Indonesia, the government devised ways to combat the impacts of mass tourism, such as limiting the number of people who could climb Borobudur temple.

But in other places, such as Komodo National Park, the only remaining habitat of the endangered giant lizards known as Komodo dragons, new mass tourism plans are worrying conservationists and UNESCO.

Hera Oktadiana, an associate professor at James Cook University whose research focuses on tourism in Indonesia, said younger tourists were becoming more socially and environmentally aware and government and industry needed to take note.

Dr Oktadiana said transparency around the Komodo project was lacking and more needed to be done to involve local communities in the process – a vital part of any sustainable tourism project.

According to Cypri Jehan Paju Dale of Kyoto University, by converting the fragile ecosystem into a mass-tourist destination with a target of more than 1 million visitors a year, the government is prioritising business over conservation.

Under the plan, tourism will be concentrated on Rinca, one of the park’s islands, at a Jurassic Park-inspired development.

A Komodo dragon on Komodo Island.

Komodo National Park is the only remaining habitat of the endangered giant lizards known as Komodo dragons. Photo: 123rf

Dr Dale, a researcher of tourism development at Komodo National Park, said he was also concerned the livelihoods of local small-scale tourism providers were at risk because some large companies had been granted permission to develop and operate exclusively within the park.

“[This] creates conflicts of resource use between these companies and local communities, [and] smaller companies or individuals who work in conservation under the framework of community based tourism,” Dr Dale said.

He said the project lacked a coherent conservation management plan and he feared the development could destroy important habitat for the endangered lizards.

“It is not the way to go to build the tourism industry by granting concessions to several companies inside the habitat of the Komodo dragon,” he said.

“This is one of the principles of sustainable tourism; you can get benefit from the ecosystem … if you maintain it.”

Indonesian Minister for Tourism Sandiago Uno said the government planned to consult with local communities in the coming months.

He said an increase in entry fees would be used to fund conservation projects, and cooperation with local tourism businesses was a priority.

“The government wants conservation and the economy through tourism to run in balance,” Uno said.

International tourism across the globe is expected to reach pre-pandemic levels within the next three years, Maclaren said.

“So, when that occurs, did we put the infrastructure in place to deal with that volume of people? And did we create the awareness [that] being there its a privilege, [not a right]?”


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