Tourism in the Asia-Pacific region has seen impressive growth in recent years, aided by cheaper air fares, an expanding consumer class and increased exposure brought about by improved internet connectivity. Although these developments have led to significant economic benefits for countries across the region, they have also had some negative consequences, particularly for the environment.

Around 133.1m visitors travelled to ASEAN countries in 2019, up from 129.2m in 2018 and 125.7m in 2017. With this figure expected to reach as high as 155.4m by 2022, it is important for stakeholders in the tourism industry to ensure that any future expansion is managed as carefully and sustainably as possible, in order to minimise disruption to natural heritage and local communities.

Governments and businesses across the region are taking notice, and a sustainable approach to tourism is now gaining traction. According to the UN World Tourism Organisation, sustainability principles refer to the environmental, economic and socio-cultural aspects of tourism development, and a suitable balance must be established between these three dimensions to guarantee long-term development.

Leading the Way

Countries that have a long track record of attracting foreign visitors offer both positive and negative examples of sustainable tourism. The Philippines is the sixth-most-visited country in ASEAN, attracting visitors to its beaches despite the logistical challenges of travelling to some destinations in the archipelago. However, overdevelopment has had a detrimental impact on some parts of the Philippines, most notably Boracay, one of the country’s best known beach resorts. In April 2018 the government announced that the island would be closed to visitors for six months due to the impact of unchecked development, insufficient wastewater treatment and overcrowding. An emergency task force found widespread environmental violations, with litter and sewage being pumped directly into the ocean. At the same time, illegal fishing had decimated up to 90% of the island’s coral reefs, according to regional media. Boracay hosted roughly one-third of the country’s visitors in 2017 and accounted for 20% of tourism revenue. As a result, its closure had a considerable impact on the local economy, with residents criticising the government for what was regarded as an abrupt announcement. Although the authorities provided financial support to communities that were directly impacted, the programme remained controversial as the government was unable to reimburse all applicants for transportation allowances due to insufficient funds.

Open for Business

The destination reopened in October 2018 and the rehabilitation appears to have had a positive impact on the island. Roughly 2m people visited Boracay in 2019, despite a cap of 19,000 tourists per day to prevent the environmental effects of overcrowding. The authorities have taken a series of additional measures to protect the area, including a ban on cigarettes and alcohol on the beach and in some public areas, a ban on single-use plastics, and the introduction of strict environmental accreditation procedures for restaurants, hotels and resorts. Airlines have also been told to reduce the number of flights to Godofredo P Ramos Airport.

While emergency measures appear to have been successful in Boracay, long-term plans to foster sustainable practices in the tourism industry are preferable to short-term solutions after damage has already been done. In light of this, the government revised the National Tourism Development Plan 2016-22 to improve environmental protection guidelines. Additionally, rehabilitation programmes have been proposed for other resorts in the archipelago, including Manila Bay, El Nido and Panglao.

Protecting Potential

Similar measures have been taken at Maya Bay in Thailand, which became a popular destination after it was used as the filming location for the 2000 Hollywood movie The Beach. In June 2018 the beach was closed as part of what was planned to be a four-month rehabilitation programme. However, in October 2018 the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) announced that Maya Bay would be closed indefinitely so that the beach’s natural resources could return to their normal condition. In May 2019 the DNP issued an announcement that the beach would reopen in mid-2021, giving the authorities time to develop new facilities such as a dock for tourist boats, a walking board and an e-ticket system.

According to Paul Ashburn, co-managing partner of consultancy BDO Thailand, measures such as the Maya Bay closure serve as a signal to investors that the Thai government is prepared to take proactive steps to protect the country’s assets, which in turn strengthen the long-term potential of the tourism sector. “Sustainable tourism measures are always a positive sign for the country, the environment, communities, tourists and businesses,” Ashburn told OBG. “Investors committed to the long-term future of the tourism industry will understand the necessity of closing off endangered environments and the benefits this will bring to the industry in the future.”

The delicate balance required to ensure sustainable development in the industry can be seen elsewhere in the region as well. In Malaysia the Cameron Highlands have long played a key role in attracting visitors to the country. However, their popularity has had a negative affect on the local environment. In addition to its lush scenery and comfortable climate, one of the key draws of the Cameron Highlands is agro-tourism, with sought-after attractions including tea plantations, and farms for roses, strawberries and honey. This has led to overdevelopment and land often being cleared – in some cases, illegally – which has contributed to landslides and rising temperatures. This has the potential to undermine the area’s main tourism selling points, and experts have urged the authorities to take action to prevent further damage and put in place long-term plans to ensure the area is preserved.

Easing Pressure

The Indonesian authorities have also recognised the need for a sustainable approach to tourism amid fears of saturation in Bali, the country’s best-known tourism destination. The 10 New Balis strategy was launched in 2016 in an attempt to replicate the island’s economic success in other destinations, as well as to ease the pressure on Bali, which suffers from environmental issues such as water shortages due to the high number of visitors.

According to Indonesia’s Ministry of Tourism, the alternative locations were already attractions in their own right but would benefit from better access and more amenities. The destinations earmarked by the ministry to receive infrastructure investment include Lake Toba in North Sumatra, Borobudur Temple in Central Java and Mount Bromo in East Java. Since the policy was announced the government has embarked on an airport expansion drive to support growing tourist numbers. For example, Silangit Airport in North Sumatra was upgraded in 2017, which enabled it to gain international status. In February 2019 local media reported that there were plans to further expand the airport to become almost five times its current size.

Making Progress

In parts of the region where tourism is in the early stages, there are opportunities to learn from the mistakes of others and adopt best practices at the outset. Myanmar’s tourism industry expanded rapidly between 2011 and 2015 thanks to economic and political reform, but growth has slowed in the years since, largely as a result of international criticism for its handling of violence in Rakhine State and the resulting drop in western visitor numbers. Consequently, both tourism authorities and businesses have focused attention on attracting tourists from Asia: Myanmar granted visa exemption for tourists from China, Japan, Hong Kong, Macao and South Korea in October 2018. This approach has seen some success, with the number of Chinese visitors increasing by 152% to 750,000 in 2019, or 40% of total arrivals, according to Myanmar’s Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population. However, the approach has attracted some criticism, particularly regarding the proliferation of low-cost tour packages from China. These tours typically involve groups of visitors being taken to shops believed to be aligned with Chinese companies, with tourists often paying in Chinese yuan rather than Myanmar kyat. As a result, little to none of the money spent in this way contributes to the Myanmar economy. Tourism stakeholders in Myanmar have urged officials to take action on the issue to ensure that local businesses see more benefits, making tourism growth more sustainable and inclusive.

Myanmar would also benefit from diversifying its destinations due to mounting pressure on popular sites. Although the tourism industry has opened up since 2011, most visitors remain concentrated in the big four destinations of Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake. Predictably, this rapid growth has brought environmental concerns, particularly at Inle Lake, which has seen a significant fall in water levels and quality due to nearby overdevelopment.

As a result, the government has taken steps to diversify the locations on offer, promising to promote other parts of the country and providing licences for businesses to operate in previously hardto-reach places, such as the Myeik Archipelago in the south; remote Chin State in the west; and Loikaw, the capital of Kayah State, in the east. However, given the risk that previously undisturbed areas could receive a sudden influx of visitors, any such developments should be handled with care. Although sustainable tourism is a new concept in a country that was largely closed to visitors until relatively recently, there are encouraging developments. For example, the Myanmar Responsible Tourism Awards, which have been held annually since 2017, aim to promote the activities of tourism businesses that are operating in a sustainable way.

Supporting Growth

Another Asia-Pacific country with a relatively new tourism industry is Papua New Guinea. Due to its remoteness, lack of infrastructure and security concerns, the country has struggled to attract tourist numbers to rival its Pacific Island peers, among which Fiji is the most popular destination. Nevertheless, there has been positive progress in recent years, with PNG attracting 211,000 international visitors in 2019, around half of which came from Australia.

There is potential for further growth, with ideas for expansion including agro-tourism initiatives inspired by the Cameron Highlands, as well as celebrations of the country’s unique culture, festivals and rituals. PNG’s remoteness also means there is significant potential for adventure activities like diving, snorkelling and trekking, and the country’s biodiversity offers opportunities for wildlife watching.

PNG’s tourism sector is being supported by the World Bank through the PNG Tourism Sector Development Project, launched in 2017, which aims to implement an integrated approach to tourism in East New Britain and Milne Bay. The two regions were selected due to their high tourism potential, as well as their ability to contribute to broader economic growth. The $20m project has also provided support for community-led tourism companies to create jobs in the industry. Although such programmes are only a starting point, they are an encouraging indication that the authorities recognise the importance of ensuring sustainability and inclusivity in tourism.

Harnessing Tech

Technological advancements have already led to significant changes in tourism across the Asia-Pacific region. Improved internet access has accelerated the shift away from package tours and towards independent travel, and has also helped raise awareness about the need for sustainable tourism practices. Images shared online showing overcrowding in Boracay and Maya Bay, for example, are likely to have contributed towards the decision to close those areas to tourists.

“Passengers used to just use online platforms to book a flight. Now people use these platforms as a source of inspiration, a place to discover information and to read reviews,” Henry Hendrawan, CFO of Indonesian online travel platform Traveloka, told OBG.

Technology has also benefitted the tourism authorities and service providers by enabling them to reduce their environmental impact. In Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, the country’s most popular tourism destination, officials have collaborated with boat operators to install waste treatment technology on their vessels. Additionally, the growing use of e-bikes in major cities, particularly in South-east Asia, has the combined benefit of reducing pollution and easing traffic congestion. E-bikes have already become a popular way of exploring in destinations such as Bagan in Myanmar.

As countries around the world seek to develop a more sustainable approach to tourism – particularly in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic and its related restrictions to movement and travel – and it will be beneficial for both governments and businesses to introduce measures to protect the environment and diversify visitor interest away from the most sought-after destinations. Not only will this more evenly benefit local communities and economies, it will also help appeal to the growing number of visitors that are conscious about their carbon footprint and preventing further damage to the environment. This will ensure that popular tourism destinations can be enjoyed for years to come.