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Educating the Travelling Community and the Investor

9th Pacific Asia Travel Association Adventure Travel and Ecotourism Conference

12-14 January 1997, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia

Noah Shepherd, Director and General Manager, SeaCanoe

Just before this conference, I was fortunate enough to spend three days in the Sabah Jungle. My companions included Albert Teo, Managing Director of Borneo Eco Tours, along with Heather and John, an Australian couple, who were spending three weeks in Borneo as tourists.

Along with a few others here today, I visited Albert’s new Sukau Rainforest Lodge near Sandakan.

I was piggy in the middle between Albert the investor, and the two Australian Ecotourists. I’m a tour operator, but I took part in this experience as a consumer. On this trip, I had the benefit of having Albert the investor there as well. The investor and the consumer could be interviewed and observed - and I had no responsibilities other than to enjoy myself - it was a rare opportunity.

Here are some of my insights:

The Consumer: The travelling community needs to be better informed before departure to make their trip enjoyable, educational and low-impact. They are travelling, often from the other side of the world. It is our duty as suppliers to help them get the best out of their experience.

Several points need to be addressed to achieve this aim:

Cultural differences - Adventure travel is not the same as home - that’s why it is adventure. People do things differently on the other side of the world. Some people crave authentic cultural experiences, while others are scared of anything.

The well informed tourist needs to know what to expect at this new and exotic destination - before they book.. When should I take off my shoes, what attire is expected, which hand should I eat with, and so on. The well informed tourist will have a more pleasurable and enriching experience, also gaining the respect of the host community when they honour and practice local customs.

Many of the Ecotourism horror stories we know were created by uninformed and unsuspecting, but well intending, Ecotourists - who want to do "right" for the destinations they visit, but don’t know how.

Expectations - We’ve seen a lot a drum banging and tribal dancing over the last few days at this conference - one might think we were in a Five Star hotel instead of a true Ecotourism destination. This welcome is marvelous, but we in the industry know that this is a show for our benefit.

Brochures of exotic destinations often show tribes in colourful dresses, promote "authentic" welcoming ceremonies, and other cultural marvels. However, this is often hype, exactly what the Ecotourist is trying to avoid. Expecting authenticity, the tourist arrives in a local village to be greeted by people wearing Levi’s and baseball caps. The colourful village life is actually rubbish strewn everywhere, and the horsecart is replaced by the trusty Honda Dream.

Responsible Ecotourism operators undersell and over deliver. Leave the hype up to the hotel guys - that’s their job. We are into delivering authenticity, so let’s do it. We cannot paint a glamorous picture of our destinations if we cannot deliver as described.

For example, a well know tour operator describes the Banaue Rice Terraces in the Philippines as " one of the most stunning places in the world". Well, maybe…

Consumers on an Internet newsgroup think otherwise. You don’t get drums and dances every time you enter a village, and the glossy don’t often depict the reality. One contributor writes: ‘The 8th wonder of the world is now fast becoming the "It's-a-wonder-all-that-garbage-doesn't-cause-a-landslide" rice terraces’. Perhaps that operator needs to focus on destination enhancement instead of Tourism hype.

Travel with a sense of humour - Don’t expect to see tigers from the room of your five star hotel - and get angry if you do! What is a Five-star, even an "Ecolodge", doing in a tiger habitat anyway?

Travel to remote places is often dirty, dusty, hot, cold, uncomfortable and on unpaved roads, if roads exist at all. The aircon van is not always close at hand and, out in remote areas, vehicles have an uncanny habit of breaking down. Vehicles breakdown and roads always seem to collapse on your way back to the airport. The experienced traveler expects the unexpected - this is adventure travel after all.

As operators, we need to find the balance allowing enough "cushion" time for transfers vis a vis waiting for hours at airports. We need to adjust schedules to take account of problems - but the consumer must be prepared to expect these eventualities as well.

Let me quote from last month’s Travel Trade Report:

" A world Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Malaysia study recently showed that foreign eco tourists are high income earners who tend to spend more time in the country.... WWF Project director Dr Geoffrey Davison said: ‘ The study showed most of the ecotourists belonged to the middle and upper middle income groups in their own countries. The results clearly dispel the common misconception that foreign ecotourists are dirty budget backpackers’ "

Out in the middle of nowhere, where we may see our tiger, we often ask five star tourists to stay in backpacker type accommodation. The client should know this well in advance. If they have to sleep under a mosquito net, tell them. If the only bathing facility is cold water, that needs to be explained. Let the only surprises be pleasant ones.

Food - is always interesting. My Australian ecotourist friends only wanted local food - they were fairly unique. When I was younger, there was a standing joke about British tourists taking teabags and marmalade on holiday to Spain. It’s not so funny really; we cannot expect all tourists to eat all local food. A balance is in order, but sometimes, local food is the only option, which leads to hygiene.

Hygiene is usually viewed with paranoia. Of course we must be careful about what we eat and drink. Some places are suspect - avoid them.

However there is also the question of liability. Under new European Union laws, the operator is fully responsible for the well being of the tourist. This means that the operator may be held liable if the tourist gets sick from food. This puts the burden on the operator to recommend certain places for eating, and fortunately or unfortunately, conservatism rules.

Street stands are out, five star hotel restaurants are in. Its a bit unfair. Local food is often fresh and authentic - and when was the last time you bought a fresh and authentic meal in a Five Star? The street stand buys their chicken at five in the morning, kills it, barbecues it, runs out of food and shuts shop at nine in the morning. This food outlet is no go. However, the hotel that buys prechilled portions of chicken from the catering supply company and keeps them for days in the fridge is in. Paranoia is one thing - sensibility is another. A sensible approach is far more reasonable. So is the price. If I ever had a fair-priced meal in a Five Star F&B facility, I don’t remember it.

Different Folks - Some consumers have special needs - physical disabilities often create special needs. Adventure travel is often out of bounds for those with disabilities. Realistically, it is very difficult to climb Mount Kinabalu in a wheelchair.

However, a little creativity and concern goes a long way. we as an industry need to look at catering for those with special needs. You never see a five star hotel without ramps and special toilet facilities. We cannot cater for everyone, but maybe we should make a point to try and cater for those with disabilities. It is not a subject for this conference but one I feel needs to be discussed in the future.

Complaints - How to deal with them? If you stick to the above checklist, there shouldn’t be any.


The Investor: - Let’s turn to the question of the investor. As the market grows, there will be more investment. This investment will be Internal - from existing companies in the business; And External - from new companies entering our industry. Most ecotourism businesses by their very nature are small "Labor of Love" businesses. Because the operator loves the activity they offer, the operator is knowledgeable, quality-oriented and professional. Money is secondary to sharing the activity they love. However, the times they are a changin’. It all started with the big American "Ecotourism" wholesalers whose goal is not a "Labour of Love", but rather maintaining an Absentee - Owner American lifestyle at the expense of cheap local labour.

I would like to quote from last month’s Travelasia magazine:

" The Foochows, the rich timber tycoons in Sibu, Sarawak, are slowly but surely ‘invading’ the tourism industry in Kuching. Over the past few years, they have been buying some of the smaller hotels and travel agencies in Kuching. Quite a number of travel agencies are on sale for two reasons; one, they are not doing well and two, the Sibu Tycoons are willing to pay big bucks. The Foochows are no strangers to the business community in Kuching as they own some of the largest trading houses and construction companies in the city. But their foray into the tourism industry is quite a recent phenomenon. Why the sudden interest in tourism ? Well, our friends in Kuching tell us that given the current restrictions on the timber industry , these cash rich investors are looking for other interests to invest their money in. ‘ The tourism industry looks glamorous and lucrative, especially with all the publicity given to it in the media. And as there are agencies for the picking, they feel it timely to enter it. To these tycoons, paying RM300,000 to RM500,000 for an agency is nothing’ said one.

Of course, in this case, the immediately obvious question is "Where did the investment capital come from? Do these people love the Rainforest they now claim to protect? Is their new enterprise in fact a "Labour of Love"?

My partner spoke with a Jakarta "Ecotourism" company on his way to speak in Kalimantan two years ago. It turned out they were one of Indonesia’s biggest infrastructure contractors. "Ecotourism is trendy now, and we’ve got a fleet of over 40 4X4 Jeeps in our contracting, so Ecotourism looks like an easy way to make money." I wonder if their customers ever wonders about the last dam project their Jeep transport was involved in?

Is this "Costs:Benefits" investment trend the way our "Labour of Love" industry is going?

I had dinner last night in this room and sat next to an Englishman living in Singapore. I asked him what his conference interests were, as he seemed to know few people here and looked a little out of place. It turns out that he is a director of an investment company. Most of his company’s work is developing five star hotels, office complexes and golf courses. His partners now want to invest in Ecotourism in Indonesia. I was stunned. I asked him why? What is the common ground between his current interests and his partners’ wishes to invest in Ecotourism. "We’ve researched the market well..." he said "...and our findings show us two good things about Ecotourism; minimum investment and excellent cashflow". Whilst the few true ecotourism companies try to help enfranchise local people with minimum capitalisation and no infrastructure, the Five Star crowd sees our sector as an opportunity for low risk quick profits.

Is this the way our industry is going?

The potential external investor may be bound by legal constraints within the country where he is operating. Third world and developing nations protect their assets and have every right to do so. Thank goodness, investment opportunities are not always open to all. In the Lao PDR for example, the government is committed to tourism partnership projects for Ecotourism development only. In Thailand and the Philippines, investment must be majority locally owned and Malaysia has its own laws to protect ‘local’ people. In reality, these laws rarely protect true local people, and only open the door for well heeled business from the capital city to continue the exploitation of their own countrymen.

The investor needs to be aware of the needs of local people and how to involve and benefit local people if he is to produce a true Ecotourism project. How do we educate the investor about the principles of Ecotourism? How do we inform the investor of our very own principles?

Maybe we need to look at ourselves first before we come up with the answers. As a trade organisation, PATA has its own ‘Code for Environmentally Responsible Tourism’ which is promoted as the ‘Green Leaf’ campaign. Part of the code reads as follows:

‘The PATA code urges Association and Chapter members and their industry partners to ... Provide the opportunity for the wider community to take part in discussions and consultations on tourism planning issues insofar as they affect the tourism industry and the community’

The theme of this conference is ‘Integrating Indigenous Cultures in Nature Based Tourism’. We have the ideal opportunity for discussions and consultations as the code says; but - in this Five Star hotel - I do not see one speaker or panelist at this conference who could remotely be described as indigenous.

Maybe we should stick to our own principles and codes before preaching to others.

Human resources Exploitation: The investor needs to be aware of the required commitment to human resource management for any real Ecotourism company. I had another enlightening conversation with an American man a couple of days ago. He is not here this afternoon, but is involved in our industry. His stated:

‘One of the best things about this part of the world is cheap labour’

Is this responsible investment, or is it exploitation?

We’ve got a saying in Britain; ‘you pay peanuts, you get monkeys’. Human resource management is not only about salaries - Khun Paradech Phayakvichien, Deputy Governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, in his talk yesterday, mentioned that Ecotourism must ‘improve the standard of living, improve the quality of life’ and of course this does not come through cash alone, it comes through dedicated training, natural history education, staff development, medical and health care schemes and real leisure time.

Constraints on Growth: There are limiting factors in Ecotourism investments. For example, does the investor impose self defined volume limits? If he is a true Ecotourism, he must limit the environmental damage and hence the number of people that he transports. Ecotourism cannot be a free market. A typical market has restrictions; standards, tariff and non tariff barriers - but Ecotourism, even with these possible restrictions cannot be a free for all. It must, in order to maintain its own goals, impose limits on its own growth. The environment, the ‘eco’ is the limiting factor.

Lastly, the investor needs to watch out for the eco bandwagon. In any growth industry, competition will emerge. There is nothing wrong with competition. Competition keep companies on their toes, competition can help improve standards and quality, and competition gives customers a better choice.

Some say imitation is the finest form of flattery. But, imitation, where the competitor flies the Ecotourism flag attempting to pass off as ‘green’ with little or no regard for the environment and imitation, where the competitor’s sole driving force is profit alone is a sad form of investment This unethical form of ecotourism investment poses the greatest threat to our credibility as an industry.

Benefits: To end on a more upbeat note, I would like to return to Dr Davison’s WWF report. In it he noted that ecotourists spent an average of 10 days in Malaysian Borneo compared with other tourists who spent an average of three to four days here. He also reported the ecotourists contributed more to the economies of smaller communities, spending more, at local levels.

Ecotourism is the way to go. It is not just good business, it is good for the community and it is good for the environment - but only if we do it right. It is up to us as the world’s largest travel association to make sure we do it right and not just pay lip service to what could unfortunately end up being this decade’s latest travel fad.

Thank you.

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