Concerted efforts from both the public and private sectors over the past two decades have fuelled the rise of a tourism industry that has grown into one of the country’s strongest sustainable economic contributors. Although other industries such as the automotive sector create more export value, tourism provides additional benefits in that many tourist activities are conducted in an environmentally and economically sustainable manner, ensuring continuous operations for generations to come. Many of Thailand’s key tourist attractions rely heavily on maintaining unspoiled natural environments to continue to provide unique experiences for travellers. These include clean white sandy beaches that give way to vibrant marine habitats and densely forested tropical jungles home to all manner of exotic plant and animal species. In order to preserve these and other assets, the Thai tourism sector is endeavouring to ensure the viability of the industry for years to come through the implementation of a wide range of measures, ranging from energy efficiency and consumption reduction efforts to habitat conservation and greater community-level involvement.
Not unique to Thailand, the concept of more sustainable tourism has been gaining momentum for years, driven by an increased awareness among tourists of their impact on the environments and societies that they visit and their corresponding willingness to seek out and pay a premium to reduce their footprints. The ramifications of this shifting preference are already spreading across the tourism and hospitality sectors worldwide, as operators make greater efforts to provide services demanded by their clientele. According to Blue and Green Tomorrow’s “Guide to Sustainable Tourism 2014”, some 43% of survey respondents said they would consider the ethical or environmental footprint of their main holiday in 2014, with nearly 10% more saying they would partially be doing so. Perhaps surprisingly, a similar trend was discovered among business travellers, who tend to stay in urban centres and high-end hotels rather than experiencing the more nature-oriented activities generally associated with ecotourism, adventure tourism and the like. The vast majority – approximately 95% – of business travellers surveyed in Deloitte’s “Hospitality 2015” report believed that the hotel industry should be undertaking “green” initiatives and that sustainability will become a defining issue for the hospitality industry in 2015 and beyond.
By employing sustainable practices which were once viewed as unnecessary costs detrimental to the bottom line, travel and tourism operators are now able to more than recoup these investments in the long run through reduced costs, improved efficiencies and better risk management by adhering more closely to changing legal and regulatory requirements. Other less tangible benefits include engaging staff in corporate social responsibility projects (which has proven to boost employee satisfaction and morale); gaining a competitive advantage within the industry by offering differentiating experiences to customers; satisfying emerging consumer trends; and safeguarding tourism revenue streams by protecting the environment they rely on.
The Bottom Line
In satisfying these trending consumer preferences, companies are also likely to see a more immediate direct financial translation to their bottom line, as a relatively small but growing tourist segment is willing to pay more for peace of mind while on vacation. According to a 2013 poll taken by the Association for British Travel Agents, one in five consumers (21%) said they were prepared to pay more for a holiday with a company that has a better environmental and social record, up from 14% of respondents in 2012. The younger generation is leading this charge, indicating further acceptance of these trends going forward, with the survey indicating that 16-24 year olds were the most vocal in their support of sustainability. Of this age bracket 30% said they would be prepared to pay more for a holiday with a company that has a better environmental and social record.
Seeking to capitalise on this trend, a number of luxury hotels catering specifically to eco-minded clients are springing up around the world, including in Thailand. Room rates at premium eco-friendly hotels, such as Six Senses Hotels Resorts Spas, can exceed the prices charged at well heeled five-star hotels in Bangkok by four or five times. The chain currently operates two hotels in the country, located in Ko Samui and Yao Noi (along with services in Europe, Asia, the Americas and the Middle East) and offers environmentally friendly services tailored to account for geographic and cultural variability, although customers do pay a hefty price for the attention to detail. Other Thai-based initiatives catering to these customers include the Green Leaf Foundation, which compiles a list of certified green hotels, and the Thai Ecotourism and Adventure Travel Association, which does the same for local green tour operators.
Boasting more than 100 national parks and a diverse array of ecosystems, the country’s tourism industry is well positioned to offer all manner of sustainable and eco-friendly activities, including adventure tourism, volunteerism, educational tourism, agritourism and others. In order to monetise these assets, while at the same time ensuring their survival for the benefit of future generations, the government has embarked upon a number of sustainability initiatives over the past decade and a half. Key among these efforts was the creation of the Designated Area for Sustainable Tourism Administration (DASTA) in 2003, which was designed to develop, administer and promote strategic areas around the country for sustainable development.
After its launch in 2003, DASTA rolled out half a dozen designated areas over the next nine years. When selecting and ultimately approving these areas for development, 11 factors are considered. These fall into three primary categories: the value to the destination, its potential for development and the administrative capabilities of the area. Candidate areas must achieve at least a 75% satisfaction rate in order to pass muster.
Another two designated areas were added to the first six in early 2016 – namely Chiang Rai’s Chiang Saen and Hua HinChaam. The Hua HinChaam area is going to be divided into four clusters, with Hua Hin to be set up as a high-end destination, while Pran Buri and Pak Nam Pran will cater to family-oriented tourists. Meanwhile, Khao Hin Lek Fai’s and Laem Phak Bia will be oriented towards agricultural tourism and environmental education, respectively. The second designated area, Chiang Saen, is being set up as a cultural tourism destination, featuring the history of the Lanna culture as its primary point of interest.