Wooing the ‘green’ tourists | WWF
Wooing the ‘green’ tourists

Posted on 10 February 2017

A panel session on nature-based tourism at the recent Asian Development Bank’s Green Business Forum reveals that this may indeed be the future of travel in the Coral Triangle—but investments in both people and systems are essential. Here are more insights from key participants.
The role of tourism in driving economic growth in the Coral Triangle region has long been recognized, but the industry is not without its negative impacts, particularly at mass tourism destinations and specifically on the environment. Nature-based tourism (NBT) is seen to provide the opportunity to ride the global tourism growth trend, while managing its impact in areas of high conservation value.

Developing and promoting sustainable NBT in the Coral Triangle was the subject of a panel session organised through WWF’s Coral Triangle Coordination Team and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), during ADB’s first Green Business Forum (GBF) for Asia and the Pacific, held in November 2016 in Manila. The GBF’s goal was to bring together experts, business practitioners, and stakeholders to pave the way for green business solutions in the region.

The session discussed investment opportunities in NBT development in the region, especially in marine-based destinations in the Coral Triangle nations of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste.

“In recent years, tourism-related coastal developments have been increasing rapidly across the region, particularly in areas of high conservation,” states the report on the ADB-WWF session, prepared by PT Hatfield. “…However, rapid and poorly planned coastal development is putting pressure on available resources and polluting coastal ecosystems. The very developments that are being established to entice visitors oftentimes can damage the very resources the visitors are coming to see.”

What the report calls a “growing nature-based visitor sector” is a real demographic, says Dr Lida Pet-Soede, consultant for the  joint  Australian Aid and WWF project Developing and Promoting Nature-Based Tourism in the Coral Triangle, and Marine Unit Leader for PT Hatfield Indonesia. “The baseline analysis report done as part of the  project summarises recent and anticipated future traveller trends. It shows that, indeed, more tourists look for an experience that allows them to experience nature and engage with local cultures without leaving negative footprints behind.”

“Ideally, all tourists would be aware of the need to minimise their footprint on the environment, whether in pristine marine protected areas,  or just generally travelling to mainstream tourist destinations adds Jackie Thomas, Leader of the WWF Coral Triangle Coordination Team. “Realistically, there will always be travellers who are not conscious of this need, but by targeting a market that is considered environmentally conscious, the ones likely to be nature-based tourists, we can help to protect those sensitive areas.”

Elements of successful NBT

Dr Pet-Soede presented some findings from the assessment of Nature-based Marine Tourism in the Coral Triangle, undertaken in December 2015 by 2iis Consulting in collaboration with WWF, Australian Aid, and the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries, and Food Security (CTI-CFF). She also shared the CTI-CFF Tourism Sustainability Framework, which outlined the necessary elements of a successful NBT endeavor: sustainability guidelines, community and stakeholder engagement, a sustainable destination strategy, and visitor experience.

Stakeholder engagement would naturally require capacity building for locals in a given area, which often means bringing in management and marketing experts from the outside. “Capacity building and training have been identified through the destination planning phase for all three focal countries in WWF’s NBT project,” says Thomas. “Key areas include physical and human capacity, infrastructure, business management, and training in delivering accommodation and hospitality services that meet the expectations of the target market. External expertise could provide a broader set of experiences, but also using local experts who know the conditions, context, languages, and cultures, and who have a good understanding of what is likely to be achieved, can help navigate the different relationships and political context invaluable to developing successful, sustainable NBT experiences.”

“From my field visits, I found that local guides and communities can really add to a traveller’s positive experience if they know how to take care of their own environment, and can talk about their own nature and cultural sights,” seconds Dr Pet-Soede. “More important is increasing understanding and skills among local providers for supporting traveller safety and comfort. If those skills are met, visitors will want to return and tell their friends to go visit, as well.”

The ADB-WWF panel discussion report cites the “chicken-and-egg problem”—why invest in a tourism industry that does not exist, and how can tourism exist if the investments are not there? “According to the NBT baseline assessment, there is a growing body of evidence that the overall return on investment for these types of niche tourism far exceeds those of mass tourism, providing economic, social, environmental, and cultural benefits to the people on the ground who often need those benefits most,” Thomas says. “NBT also provides an opportunity for emerging countries to build their tourism industries in a way that supports both their communities and their economy, whilst also providing them with a way to avoid some of the negative impacts that mass tourism could bring.”

From the research done under the nature based tourism project it is clear that the Coral Triangle region is particularly well suited to take advantage of the forecasted growth in the nature- and activity-based tourism segments, Thomas adds. “It shows that through these segments, the region has the opportunity to build a strong and differentiated competitive advantage in the global tourism market.”

Young local engineers

”A safe starting point is to develop good collaborative stewardship over natural areas and wildlife,” says Dr Pet-Soede. “That will draw pioneers in the nature-based adventure tourism market segment. Development of low footprint tourism infrastructure is totally possible these days, providing both comfortable accommodations for visitors and improved living for surrounding communities. Renewable energy and clean water solutions are available throughout the CT region. Getting young local engineers connected with international tourism experts working under a blue economy approach to development in the coastal and marine zones is the way to go.”

Certain types of investments would also be most needed or appropriate for the development of tourism in a CT country. “Investment in safeguarding the natural assets of the destination is absolutely key for nature-based tourism,” says Dr Pet-Soede. “Reefs must be in good shape, turtles should be abundant and protected, the beach should be pristine and clear of rubbish and construction. If this is not the case, why would a tourist want to go to such a remote destination and spend a considerable amount of money getting to a place that is not special?”

As part of the CT nature-based tourism project, a draft destination plan has been developed for specific sites in each of the three Pacific CT countries, specifying enabling conditions or needs to support sustainable nature based tourism in those locations, reveals Thomas. The destination plans and an investment prospectus were developed by the project advisers from ‘TRC Tourism’ and ‘Destination Marketing Store’. “Examples of regional or multi-country investment opportunities include sustainability principles and guidelines for building, maintaining, and managing eco-lodges; standards for vessel and human interactions with marine wildlife; business support training and mentoring; product distribution through a centralised on-line reservations system; safety standards for nature and adventure-based activities; expanding science-based volunteer tourism programmes, and many others.”

Finally, there is the usual dilemma—when too many tourists immersing themselves in natural experiences actually end up disrupting them. “The destination plans and appropriate standards being applied should manage tourists and provide measures to reduce or negate the impacts of visitors wanting a nature-based experience,” says Thomas. “Local authorities would also need to consider the carrying capacity of such places and wildlife interaction experiences.”

“The ideal of a comfortable adventure and safe exploration is very appealing for a growing number of tourists,” says Dr Pet-Soede. “So if there are many other ‘explorers’ and piles of rubbish in an area devoid of wildlife, that ideal is clearly not met. This means that developing tourism in areas with sensitive wildlife and beautiful, pristine nature should be done with a very clear vision and management framework where all stakeholders participate, to avoid destroying the very assets that visitors were drawn to in the first place.”
Gabby Ahmadia, senior marine scientist at WWF, surveys a reef in the Selat Dampier MPA, Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia.
© WWF-US / James Morgan