With bigger players set to enter this niche segment, the tide is turning for ecotourism – a fact that is both exciting and frightening. Yeoh Siew Hoon reports.
I've spent the past five days in Kuching, facilitating the Asia Pacific Ecotourism Conference 2004 of which I was the conference director.
It's not the first ecotourism conference I've facilitated or attended, and I am sure it won't be the last.
But there were a couple of things which struck me as different this time round.
See, in the past, ecotourism was a segment of the tourism industry that was relegated to the fringe. It was dominated by small players, people who did it either as a hobby or out of passion.
Most investors and developers rolled their eyes skywards when the word ‘ecotourism' was even mentioned at conferences.
And you may understand why when you read the International Ecotourism Society's definition of ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas which conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people". It represents the idealistic edge of our industry.
But the tide is changing for ecotourism.
In the last 12 months, we have seen major players take an interest in ecotourism – Banyan Tree Holdings has launched its Colours of Angsana collection, which represents the group's move into nature and cultural tourism.
Recently, Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces entered into a joint venture with Conservation Corporation Africa and Cigen Corporation, part of the Chaudhary Group, to provide wildlife experiences across India.
The fact that ecotourism will be featured as one of the main breakout sessions at this month's Hotel Investment Conference Asia/Pacific (HICAP), the region's main investment event (October 13-15, Hong Kong), speaks volumes about how ecotourism has suddenly gained serious currency.
What's next? Could a group such as Starwood enter the fray – after all, they have entered the hip, trendy segment with W and spas with Wonderland?
The fact that I can even ask this question proves the tide has turned for ecotourism. I believe we stand at the threshold of a new age in ecotourism – it is set to join the mainstream.
The fact excites me, and frightens, me at the same time.
While I am excited by the opportunities it will open up finally to those who have slogged away for years in the darkness, without recognition, money or fame, I am frightened by what it could all mean.
Will the true soldiers of ecotourism, many of whom have built up their businesses through blood, sweat and tears – and a lot of money they can ill afford – be trampled by the elephants about to enter the patch?
Ecotourism is special precisely because it is small, authentic and intimate, run by passionate individuals.
Are we about to see the ‘Starbuckisation' of ecotourism?
Our conference theme was "Community, Conservation & Commerce". It was aimed at introducing the very important third pillar – commerce – to an industry that has always been long on ideals and short on the practical matters of money.
To prepare themselves for the new wave, smaller players have to get smarter about money matters. Otherwise they will find it hard to compete with bigger players who may have more bucks than heart.
At the same time though, no one should neglect community and conservation matters.
The question is, how do you balance the three pillars of community, conservation and commerce? From the discussions at the conference, it was clear it would not be easy.
What was also clear is we do not have a choice but to make it work.
After all, we all know that tourism cannot be sustainable in the long run if we have bubbles of luxury, surrounded by poverty, or if it only enriches the minority and keeps the majority hungry – and angry over time. The SHY Report
A regular column on news, trends and issues in the hospitality industry by one of Asia's most respected travel editors and commentators, Yeoh Siew Hoon.
Siew Hoon, who has covered the tourism industry in Asia/Pacific for the past 20 years, runs SHY Ventures Pte Ltd. Her company's mission is "Content, Communication, Connection". She is a writer, speaker, facilitator, trainer and events producer. She is also an author, having published "Around Asia In 1 Hr: Tales of Condoms, Chillies & Curries". Her motto is ‘free to do, and be'.
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