President and Founding Chair of Asian Ecotourism Network (AEN), Board Member of Japan Alliance of Responsible Travel Agencies (JARTA) and owner of Spirit of Japan Masaru Takayama experienced ecotourism when he went for diving in Costa Rica during the 90s. He witnessed how ecotourism contributes to the local community and travellers. He took action to deliver this experience to his home country. With this goal, he founded Japan Ecolodge Association in 2006. After he worked as ecotourism consultant in UNEP and UNWTO, he took part in founding Asian Ecotourism Network. As Takayama continues working to disseminate ecotourism in Asia, we interviewed with him about the future of sustainable tourism and ecotourism.
Interview: Burcu GENÇ
After Covid-19, how do you think the future of tourism in Asia will be? Especially, to maintain a sustainable and resilient business for the communities whose economies are based on tourism basically?
This will not be limited to Asia but may happen to the rest of the world as well, during the COVID-19, many of us realized what we have lost – the movement of people, commodities, and money that tourism depend on. At the same time, we also appreciate the nature claiming its territory i.e. cleaner air, less noise, slower lifestyle, animals and birds coming back urban areas, and the preference to who to spend time with, loved ones, families, and friends. The New Normal in our lifestyle including travel and tourism will be slower, taking more time to appreciate the nature and people, trying to give back to the host communities where people visit, all of which are the forms of sustainability. It may be difficult at the moment as we still have the restrictions imposed, but once they are lifted, the community-based tourism in the rural areas where social distancing is easier to practice will have a good chance to revive or even surpass the previous tourism volume. It is important that the host needs to prepare for that with quality not aiming for quantity, especially now when things are dormant, but will sure to start moving after this ‘hibernation’.
Do you think digital tourism or in other words “Virtual Reality” technologies can be a future trend?
The cost of travelling will rise in the post-COVID-19 as hotels and transportation need to spend more money on the prevention and sanitization and the fact that they will offer fewer seats and flights than pre-COVID period. People will be inclined to travel to closer areas and staying away from a long-haul international holiday. It means people may take less physical trips and spend more time planning which works as an impetus to the growth of VR tech in tourism. It is amazing what we can experience with a goggle operating with our fingertips without having to leave home.
Do you think eco-tourism can be an alternative over mass-tourism? Do you have any data, analysis or future projections that compares mass-tourism and eco-tourism? Especially the data that reflects the situation in Asia.
Ecotourism has always been alternative to mainstream tourism, but we are not catered for a large number of people at one time as the conservation of nature is placed more important over the utilization by us which can make negative human-induced impacts. What we are worried about is the uncontrolled nature-based destinations where people may flock to practice social distancing. Ecotourism is not just sustainable nature-based tourism but also involves to improve the welfare of the local community and enhance the understanding of nature through interpretation by the local guides. We wish we had the data, but the projection is that more and more people appreciate and select the way we do business with ecotourism as mass tourism is no longer the business as usual. Imagine a pristine white sand beach with scattered people or another inundated with tourists littering plastic bottles and making loud music. The choice is clear.
What are the responses and feedback you received from the eco-tourism zones, business and from your partners? Regaining trust would be a response to the tourism business in 2021?
Ecotourism is not something new, we believe it exists in Asia from the early 90s. The pre-IT era was more for the basic and at times challenging to reach and was for the among few nature-loving elites. Now with the IT, any businesses can promote their ecotourism services, however many do start without having a proper understanding of what it is, in particular the triple bottom line that leads to sustainability. AEN is growing steadily because it has a feel of a like-minded family where people come and talk to share with their challenges and opportunities so rather than regaining trust for 2021, I can say we confirm our strong bonds that have been interwoven over time to surmount this difficult time. It is something we do best and we are sure to continue with promoting authentic ecotourism for years to come. We are together with communities, governments of all sizes, ecotourism operators, guides, ecolodges and resorts, academia, media, and destinations that work in collaboration, aiming high to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals so that all nature-based tourism become sustainable for the benefit of both hosts and visitors, not to mention our natural assets have the top priority as always, to be protected as every one of us human-being is dependent on her, the air we breathe and water we drink, things we often think we get them for free – they won’t be available with the way we live now. We are calling for drastic changes to respect nature and stop unsustainable life. Choose sustainable or ecotourism for your next holiday, please.