Higher demand for eco-tourism as environmental awareness increases

RUMI HARDASMALANI Today Online 23 Dec 16;

SINGAPORE — Tapping a new breed of travellers’ increasing environmental awareness and penchant for off-the-beaten-track experiences, travel agencies and tour companies are cashing in on a small but growing business segment as they adapt and evolve in a fast-changing industry.

The digital revolution has severely disrupted the industry not just in Singapore but around the world, where more and more people plan, manage and book their travels online on their own.

To survive, companies have turned to “experiential tourism” that focuses on creating immersive and meaningful experiences for travellers — and sustainable tourism, or eco-tourism, is quickly becoming a hot-seller.

The UN World Tourism Organisation, which has designated 2017 as the “international year of sustainability tourism for development”, defines sustainable tourism as taking “full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities”.

Dynasty Travel, one of the biggest agencies here, said it is seeing a 5 per cent year-on-year growth in this segment. Its director of marketing and communications Alicia Seah said, “Travellers these days are more affluent and largely looking for never before experiences.

“They are well educated and conscious about not leaving carbon foot-prints behind as they travel. Sustainable tourism is, hence, getting more popular as it comes with this feel-good factor of giving back.”

Popular eco-tourism destinations include the Maldives, Australia, Thailand, Bali, as well as Guilin and Lijiang in China, Ms Seah said.

A spokesperson for Chan Brothers noted that the segment is “still rather niche”, although the demand for sustainability tours has been “gradually increasing due to a higher level of awareness”.

“The cause is more than worthwhile as these projects are not simply about bringing in sales revenue, but also about meeting the environmental aspect of our triple bottom line — namely profit, people and planet,” the spokesperson added.

Over at luxury tour operator Lightfoot Travel, places such as the Amazon, Antarctica, Bhutan and Mongolia are high on customers’ itineraries. Mr Nico Heath, the firm’s Singapore director, said, “We do push this element to our clients, and find that often, it does affect the decision-making process.

“Our younger clients (20 and 30somethings) tend to be more interested in it, and sometimes they specifically request eco-friendly hotels or ones that focus on sustainability.”

The demand for eco-tourism is also partly fuelled by well-heeled travellers looking for more extraordinary experiences.

“Whether seeking something to impact them or even transform them in some way, these people are the ones who have the money to access the world’s little black book of amazing experiences,” Mr Heath added.

Globally, some places have successfully marketed themselves as eco-tourism destinations, including Bhutan, the Dominican Republic, parts of Thailand, Denmark’s capital Copenhagen as well as Swedish cities Stockholm and Malmo.

In these places, the local communities benefit from tourism dollars. Bhutan, for instance, has strict entry requirements for visitors, or what its government terms as “high-value, low-impact tourism”. Among other requirements, visitors have to pay a US$65 (S$94.20) per day tariff that goes towards alleviating the country’s education, healthcare and poverty issues.

Ms Cindy Chng, 27, who founded Eco Travel eight years ago, said her company is developing a website that enables users to search for sustainable travel options in the region. “After remaining subdued for some time, the demand for this segment is now picking up,” Ms Chng said.

“We are, accordingly, tailoring more packages that create meaningful interactions between people and places while forging memorable travel experiences. We educate the locals as well as our customers to respect the environment and cultures while being true to sustainable and responsible tourism.”

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