The Asian Ecotourism Network (AEN) officially launched on 2 June 2015 and to learn more about this important organization, we sat down with AEN chair Mr. Masaru Takayama, founder of ecotourism operator Spirit of Japan and executive director of the Japan Ecolodge Association.
You have years of experience working in ecotourism, from founding a community-based ecotourism travel company in Japan to being a judge for the World Travel & Tourism Council’s Tourism for Tomorrow’s awards. With all of this experience behind you, what does ‘ecotourism’ mean to you?
Ecotourism is nature-based sustainable tourism. It is about linking tourism with nature and conservation to support good environmental and social causes. However, the core elements to drive ecotourism are still the people, culture, history, and other uniqueness that every place has.
Ecotourism to me is an enjoyable way to travel that makes sense to the traveler, the hosts, and the destinations that are often vulnerable to human-induced impacts.
How has the state of tourism in Asia evolved, from when you first started working in the industry to today?
The form of ecotourism in Asia has existed before I started working, but what I can tell is the booming of the use and misuse of the term ‘ecotourism’as if there is a marketing benefit. Now, nearly all countries in Asia, including North Korea and the Pacific islands, offer or are at least planning to deliver ecotourism experiences. More and more people are talking about it and the industry is getting bigger. We probably have a dozen ecotourism-related forums and conferences in the region every year.
Now that United Nations have realized they need to accelerate the stage of the existing initiatives to tackle with the negative impacts generated by tourism, the one who does it from the heart feels the favorable wind to catch, while others in the leeward need to work hard to realize the common goals.
What motivated you to form the Asian Ecotourism Network (AEN)?
We [ecotourism professionals] are naturally like distant relatives. We see often each other at international events promoting ecotourism yet never really had one platform to discuss in depth about how to move the industry forward as a region.
Tourism is expanding at an alarming rate with the emergence of the new travelers and there is really no time to lose to balance the protection and utilization of the natural areas. I felt I could lead the Network with the people we know and the experiences I have gained over years working in this industry.
Why is the AEN important to you?
To me, this is the best thing that happened to Asia especially those that have been engaged in ecotourism. We now have one window to represent the region for the locals and ecotourism bodies regardless of scale, and to the international organizations. This is made possible by the generous assistance of a public organization DASTA (Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration) in Thailand.
What are some examples of successful sustainable tourism initiatives in Southeast Asia? In Laos?
There are countless number of successful initiatives in our region that are recognized worldwide. The award or prize laureates of the major institutions are good places to look as the examples: WTTC, UNWTO, WTM, National Geographic, PATA, Wild Asia, etc. In Laos, I am proud to introduce Lao National Institute of Tourism and Hospitality, LANITH for short. Through my duty to investigate the validity of their application for the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards, I was able to discover numerous challenges that the country faces while recognizing opportunities and actual work done to improve the quality of tourism. I really felt that LANITH is the only hope for the country to bottom up the industry as they have a long term commitment that invests in training people, not just in tourism infrastructure that money can buy.
Are there any lessons from your experience in tourism that stakeholders in Laos could learn from when developing ecotourism initiatives?
Like in any country, if the country wants to welcome travelers, don’t concentrate on just the number of tourist arrivals. It is more important to prolong their stay, buy, spend, and hire locally, minimize environmental impacts and maximize return to the local economy.
To realize this, one can start from learning the international standards that the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) provides and implement them, which will promise positive changes brought down all the way to the grassroots level. Also don’t forget to amicably approach the neighboring countries/regions to foster initiatives or projects together, not as a competitor, but as a sibling rivalry. Don’t pay a foreign consultant huge amounts of money to get this done. I have seen so much money wasted and the plans/reports sit on the shelf and never get implemented.
What should eco-conscious travelers look for when researching accommodations and activities? Are there any keywords in advertising or marketing that signal a business is sincerely ‘eco-friendly?’
That always has been a challenge in Asia as we don’t have ecolabels for the accommodations and activities that are based and promoted in the region. Europe does it really well by satisfying the demands of both the market and consumers meeting the international sustainable tourism standards. Make sure you look for an operator or an accommodation facility that has an environmental policy stated on their website. Better if they are certified by a third party benchmarking party listed in the GSTC website.
Rising ocean levels. Fatal heat waves. And here in Laos, a longer dry season. Climate change is affecting nearly every corner of the planet, which has great implications for the tourism industry. Will climate change be a topic addressed by the AEN?
AEN will certainly address the climate change issues in the near future; first, to raise awareness to operators and travelers; second, to provide knowledge to lead the way for them to remedy the situation by minimizing and quantifying their carbon footprint; and third, to bridge the carbon offsetting NGOs and initiatives that help Asia aim to be a carbon-free eco-travel destination.
Where are your most favorite destinations in Asia to visit?
Oh, I get this question a lot. It is hard to say as every country and destination is unique. However, so far my best are star-gazing in Mongolia’s Gobi, scuba diving in Micronesia, temple visits in Nepal and Bhutan, food in Laos (after Japan).
I have yet to explore Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Central Asia. Far East Russia like Siberia and Kamchatka are also on my travel short list.
As long as there are nice interaction with the locals, I am always happy!
Who or what inspires you to be a leader in sustainable tourism?
Hitesh Metah is a globally-recognized ecolodge architect and a mentor who inspired me to pursue in the career path I am treading now.
A leader? I think it applies to any individual regardless of ethnicity, age and sex who has the willingness to listen to others and walk the talk. But more importantly, understands that the decision made by the majority may not always be the right decision.
Thank you for speaking with us, Masaru! We’re excited to see what the AEN has in store for the region, and we can’t wait to learn more about how we can contribute to promoting ecotourism in Laos.
Stay tuned for next week’s blog when we talk with Laos’ own Ms. Soulinnara Ratanavong, a teacher at LANITH and board member of the AEN.