Sustainable approach: Governments across the region are taking steps to protect popular destinations from overdevelopment and environmental damage


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 the ASEAN region in 2019, up from 129.2m in 2018 and 125.7m in 2017. While this figure was expected to reach 155.4m by 2022, it is likely that Covid-19 will dampen visitor numbers. Nevertheless, 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 the ASEAN region, attracting visitors to its beaches despite the logistical challenges in 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 bestknown 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 total visitors in 2017 and accounted for 20% of tourism revenue. As a result, the closure of this popular destination 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 directly impacted by the closure, the programme remained controversial as the government was unable to reimburse all applicants for transportation allowances due to a lack of funds.

Open for Business

The destination reopened in October 2018 and the rehabilitation appears to have had a positive impact on the island, with the maximum number of tourists capped at 19,000 per day in order to prevent the environmental effects of overcrowding. Over 2m tourists visited the island in 2019, up by 116% from the year before, according to the Aklan Provincial Tourism Office. 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 the use of 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, which serves the island.

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 introduced 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 strengthens 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 tourism industry can be seen elsewhere in the region as well. In Malaysia the Cameron Highlands have long played an important role in attracting visitors to the country. However, its popularity has had a negative affect on the local area. 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, with land often being cleared – in some cases, illegally – contributing to landslides and rising temperatures. This has the potential to undermine the area’s main tourism selling points, and sector players have urged the authorities to take action to prevent further damage and put in place long-term plans to ensure that the area remains 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 around the country, as well as to ease the pressure on Bali, which suffers from issues such as water shortages due to the high number of visitors.

According to the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy, the alternative locations were already attractions in their own right, but would benefit from better access and more amenities. The destinations earmarked 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 in order to support growing tourist numbers. For example, Silangit Airport in North Sumatra was upgraded in 2017, which enabled it to gain international status.

Making Progress

In other parts of the ASEAN region, where the tourism industry is more nascent, there are opportunities to adopt best practices and avoid the mistakes of neighbouring countries.

Myanmar’s tourism industry expanded rapidly between 2011 and 2015 as a result of economic and political reforms in the country, 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, authorities and businesses in the country have focused their 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 already seen some success, with the number of Chinese visitors to the country increasing from 198,256 in the first nine months of 2018 to 325,193 in the same period of 2019.

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 and to ensure that local businesses see more benefits, making tourism growth more sustainable and inclusive. The Covid-19 pandemic has also raised questions about dependency on the Chinese market.

Moreover, Myanmar would benefit from diversifying its destinations due to mounting pressure on the country’s most popular sites. As the tourism industry has opened up in line with the economic and political reforms that began in 2011, most visitors remain concentrated in the “big four” destinations of Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake. Predictably, this rapid growth has brought with it environmental concerns, particularly at Inle Lake, which has seen a significant fall in water levels and quality due to overdevelopment in the surrounding area.

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 hard-to-reach places, such as the Myeik archipelago in the country’s south, remote Chin State in the west and Loikaw, the capital of Kayah State, in the east. However, there is a risk that previously undisturbed areas could suddenly receive a significant influx of visitors, so 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 recently, there are encouraging developments in this area. 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 country in the Asia-Pacific region with a relatively new tourism industry is Papua New Guinea. Its remoteness, lack of infrastructure and security concerns have meant that 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 the country attracting 195,000 international visitors in 2018, 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 tourism sector is being supported by the World Bank through the PNG Tourism Sector Development Project, which was launched in 2017 and 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 the ability to contribute to the country’s broader economic growth. The $20m project has also provided support for community-led tourism firms in order to create jobs in the industry. Although such programmes are only a starting point, they are an encouraging indication that the authorities recognise the need for sustainable and inclusive tourism.