Between the 22nd – 25th June, 2016, the Lao government played host to an ASEAN ‘Ecotourism’ forum in the Laotian city of of Pakse. The event was a great opportunity for many of the sandal clad, sarong wearing western NGO workers and people in the Ecotourism world to fly in on jets from all over the region and get together with the locals dressed in western attire and present what has been happening across ASEAN in the area of Ecotourism and justify how they are spending their investors money, along with the money invested by donor agencies and governments to support the industry in developing countries.
On display were an array of Eco-tourism destinations and projects ranging from coffee plantation resorts in Laos to tiger safaris in Burma and Nepal.
On the final day, Hotelintel.co’s very own Editor in Chief, Wimintra Jangnin was part of the final panel discussion alongside Bernard Metzger, Founder of Travelindex, and Joachim Fischer from Tourism-Insider, hosted by Kim Nguyen Van, Project director of GIZ Asean Integration. The topic of the discussion was “How viable is Ecotourism as a Sustainable Business Model?”
This panel discussion was very different to the other sessions that had happened throughout the week, as for the first time the private sector and media were invited to share their sincere opinions without bias or the requirement to tow the line with funders and investors. The discussion was open and frank, and Ecotourism was discussed through the lens of private investors looking to put their money into hotels and other Ecotourism investments as opposed to non-eco projects that might possibly bring faster and higher financial returns.
To start off, after a week of discussing Ecotourism, Bernard summed it up well as he sincerely asked everyone present “What does ‘Ecotourism’ actually mean?”. To him, it seemed that it was a very loose and broad term that meant something ‘nice’, but the scope of what Ecotourism actually was was very different for each person that he had spoken with during the week.
Tourism-Insider’s Joachim Fischer took an even more cynical line, mentioning his frustration with how the whole event had been handled from start to finish. Flying to Pakse, Laos from Germany took an inordinate amount of time. At different nodes during the trip, there was confusion and frequent delays in regard to logistics, connections and agendas. If Ecotourism in ASEAN is going to be attractive to the broader international market, it needs to be much more accessible and run with much more competence and business and marketing know-how.
Hotelintel.co’s Wimintra Jangnin said in regard to Ecotourism:
“I like the idea of being connected to nature. I appreciate the beauty of nature, but I don’t know if catching fish for dinner and biking under the sun or sleeping without AC in tropical countries is appealing to me. As for my audience who are hotel investors, they would ask what is the ROI? Can we make this a viable business model? Is there flight connectivity? Most hotel owners apply CSR activities into their business plans because of the potential financial gain from the marketing and public acknowledgement of it. It is often not purely because of benevolent motives.
We need to take a look at the misconceptions embodied within the concept of ‘Ecotourism’. Having an ‘Eco-friendly’ property or attraction doesn’t mean that operators need to make people suffer or do some kind of ‘penance’ for existing on the planet. They should offer more than one option. I want to explore Ecotourism, but I also like to be comfortable. Can I go ‘glamping’ instead? Can you provide AC using an eco-friendly system? – Or generate clean water using a natural hydro-purification system rather than giving me water from the pond?”
To hear such blunt comments from the panelists was a shock to many in the audience and received a certain degree of push-back from Ecotourism operators and civil servants whose careers depend of perpetuating funding provided by governments and NGO’s investing in developing world Ecotourism projects.
One US educated Burmese tour operator based in Burma said with pride that all of his guests who take part in the jungle tour package, get a ration of one flask of water per day to use for all of their water requirements. Many in the audience cheered at such comments and commended the work, though in the eyes of the panel, it seemed that their message was unless the Ecotourism industry can provide solutions that appeal to the comfort requirements of especially the younger demographic, then the sustainability and business viability of such Ecotourism projects is questionable. It doesn’t mean that it is impossible, and other markets are doing it around the world and experiencing some degree of business success.
Can Ecotourism be a viable business model in ASEAN? Possibly, but while much of the funding is being provided and controlled by civil servants and NGO workers, it is going to be a hard sell to ‘real world’ hotel investors.
If you are a Hotelier or hotel investor and looking to take the Ecotourism route, here are some materials to get you started: