Transitioning to sustainable tourism, post-pandemic

COUNTRIES are starting to recover from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic through the swift rollout of mass vaccinations and new normal guidelines.

The number of new cases in Southeast Asia has dropped to less than 10 per cent of its peak and countries have begun easing restrictions and reopening borders. Severely battered sectors such as hospitality and tourism are beginning to show signs of recovery.

According to international management consultancy Roland Berger, prior to the crisis, Southeast Asia received over 140 million international tourists and the tourism sector generated over US$390 billion for the economy in 2019, representing more than 13 per cent of the region's total GDP.

In Malaysia, closed borders and travel restrictions resulted in tourist numbers declining by almost 99 per cent, from 26.1 million in 2019 to around 0.1 million in 2021.

The tourism sector in Southeast Asia is expected to return to pre-pandemic levels by 2024. This will benefit countries in Southeast Asia with substantial economic reliance on the tourism sector, such as Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

For Malaysia, the tourism sector is forecasted to return to pre-pandemic levels by early 2025, bringing much needed relief to a sector almost decimated by the Covid-19 crisis.

Tourism plays a key part in the national economy but also leaves behind significant pollution, damage at tourist hotspots and pressure on resources.

The Covid-19 crisis has brought an opportunity for Southeast Asia to reimagine a more sustainable tourism industry.

"Despite the destructive impact of the Covid-19 crisis on the region's tourism sector, Southeast Asia has the opportunity to rebuild and rejuvenate with an emphasis on sustainability. We are ready to support our clients in this sector on their sustainability journey," said Roland Berger co-managing partner Southeast Asia, John Low.

Falling Short of Sustainable Tourism

The tourism sector is a big contributor to climate change, accounting for approximately 10 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions.

In Southeast Asia, several destinations suffer from a combination of over-tourism and poor waste management systems.

In addition, the tourism sector in the region has contributed to several social challenges. Mass tourism has caused irreversible damage to significant cultural assets, such as Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Borobudur in Indonesia.

Displacement of the local communities in popular tourist destinations were commonplace, driven by new developments to accommodate the burgeoning number of tourists. Furthermore, over half of revenues generated from tourism activities did not go to the local economy but instead went to foreign companies in the form of tourism leakage.

Governments and private entities have taken steps to alleviate these issues. Nature parks in Thailand are closed for certain periods of time to limit tourists and allow for restoration activities.

Similarly, the daily number of visitors are capped at popular tourist destinations in the Philippines, such as Boracay Island. New entrance fees have also been imposed to fund conservation efforts.

Despite these efforts, countries in Southeast Asia still rank poorly on tourism sustainability, with almost all countries ranking below average in terms of Travel and Tourism Sustainability, according to the World Economic Forum's Travel and Tourism Development Index 2021.

Call for action on Sustainable Tourism in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia has the opportunity to reset its tourism priorities. The current recovery from the pandemic and the global movement towards sustainability point towards a sustainable tourism future for Southeast Asia.

"Pent-up tourism demand and greater impact consciousness among tourists present opportunities for driving sustainable tourism. This is the time for Southeast Asia to reprioritise and focus on building up destinations for long-term sustainability," said Roland Berger principal, Economic Development, Southeast Asia Sulina Kaur.

Tourists are more conscious and cautious, not only about health and safety issues but also about the influence and impact of their choices on the environment.

Key opportunities can be leveraged to transition towards sustainable tourism for the region.

Focus on Quality: There is a shift in demand away from mass tourism to quality tourism.

Taking advantage of this trend, Malaysia announced ambitions on developing more niche tourist experiences in the future with stronger emphasis on open-air activities, nature-based tourism products and rural tourism.

A larger share of economic output can be generated from higher quality tourism activities, reducing the strain on the existing ecosystem.

The gradual reopening of destinations allows for new limits and boundaries to be imposed at tourist sites. Capping the number of daily visitors, re-designing areas for commercial operations and zoning of potential new developments will alleviate demand pressure at natural and cultural sites.

Cross-industry sustainability opportunities: The tourism sector can work together with other industries, such as energy and transportation, towards a common sustainable future.

The environmental impact from the tourism sector can be reduced by utilising renewable energy, improving waste management, enabling circular economy practices and deploying electric vehicles at tourist destinations.

These efforts can improve tourist experiences by reducing pollution in high tourist areas and are aligned with sustainability targets set by Southeast Asian countries.

For example, Thailand targets to have more than five million electric vehicles on the road by 2030, with the potential to reduce air pollution in key tourist sites such as Bangkok.

Involve local communities: Local community ties and involvement in tourism activities can be strengthened to drive efforts to showcase the local culture and heritage, but to also protect and conserve the local environment.

Partnerships among local communities, national and local governments, and tourism industry operators are key success factors to realising a more holistic and sustainable tourism development for the region.

Leverage technology: As the crisis has accelerated the acceptance of digitalisation, data and technology will be increasingly useful in supporting data-driven decisions for tourism destination management.

Singapore is piloting the use of data analytics to better understand tourist patterns, to provide real-time suggestions, and to influence tourist activities.

Malaysia is providing incentives for tourism providers to embrace technology in their operations, delivering seamless and contactless travel experience while also reducing service and delivery pressure at tourist hotspots.

The intended outcome of technology adoption is to better manage tourist traffic in key destinations, optimising economic impact, while allowing better crowd control, reducing carbon footprint and minimising waste output.

The improved tourist management will also contribute towards a higher quality tourist experience.

While the region's transition to sustainable tourism is undoubtedly challenging, key opportunities are available and can be leveraged to facilitate the process. Future tourism strategies and destination management need to be geared to this new paradigm of sustainable tourism in Southeast Asia.

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