Nature has always played a vital role in making tourism destinations attractive to travellers, from pristine beaches to vast rainforests. It offers the opportunity to explore and connect with the natural world, rejuvenate, and enjoy its beauty.
Over the past three decades, eco-tourism has emerged to become a dominant trend in global travel and tourism. In 2016 alone, an estimated eight billion visits were made to wildlife reserves around the world. These trends underscore the importance of conserving our natural landscapes, thereby allowing future generations to appreciate the beauty of our planet.
However, many of these natural ecosystems and wildlife are now faced with threats, putting them at risk of disappearing forever. The thriving tourism industry can help to turn this around and, if done right, serve as crucial means to promote nature appreciation, educate travellers about wildlife, as well as support communities that depend on natural landscapes for their livelihoods.
This is where 'conservation tourism' comes in. Coined and defined by ecotourism expert Ralf Buckley as "commercial tourism which makes an ecologically significant net positive contribution to biological diversity", 'conservation tourism' demonstrates a strong commitment to conservation values, where business objectives focus on the protection of these wildlife and natural spaces, while engaging and empowering local communities.
So, how then can businesses seeking to bolster their conservation contributions embrace conservation tourism principles?
A report published by Mandai Nature in April 2022, Promoting the Business of Conservation Tourism in Southeast Asia identified the following nine core tenets* that conservation tourism businesses should be designed and executed upon:
Southeast Asia boasts one of the world's highest levels of species diversity and endemism. It is home to four of the world's 25 biodiversity hotspots, and its rainforest ecosystems harbour some of the world's most iconic yet increasingly imperiled species. These include the Asian Elephant, Malayan Tiger, Orangutan, Sumatran Rhinoceros and about half of the world's hornbill species, as well as lesser known but equally threatened wildlife like the Bali Myna, Burmese Roofed Turtle, and Visayan Warty Pig. Hence, there is great opportunity for travellers to visit these unique landscapes and see biodiversity found nowhere else in the world.
Governments in Southeast Asia are increasingly recognising the need to protect threatened landscapes and conserve biodiversity, given the remarkable range of unique and threatened species which are critical for ecological, scientific and cultural reasons. Climate change is also a growing concern, with the region particularly vulnerable to its impacts. Tourism ministers at the 2016 ASEAN Ecotourism Forum signed on a roadmap for the strategic development of tourism corridors to connect the region's "ecotourism clusters".
Tourism has long been a key pillar of economic growth in Southeast Asia, contributing to government revenue, protected area management and improving livelihoods for communities for more than 30 years. Against this backdrop lies an opportunity for conservation tourism in the region to be further explored and developed to achieve a greater positive impact on biodiversity protection. Protecting these landscapes is also essential to maintaining the region's ecological balance.
And as travel resumes in a post-pandemic era, this is the opportunity for tourism to rebuild itself and make a positive contribution to conservation and biodiversity.
Encouragingly, there are tourism businessesin Southeast Asia that have begun to show a strong commitment to the values of conservation tourism. YAANA Ventures is a sustainability-focused travel and hospitality group that operates eight businesses across Southeast Asia, including the Cardamom Tented Camp - an eco-lodge developed in partnership with hospitality and lifestyle company The Minor Group and conservation organisation Wildlife Alliance. Located on an 18,000 hectare concession within the Botum Sakor National Park in Cambodia, the eco-lodge drives the conservation of the surrounding land and its biodiversity by getting guests to participate in conservation-related activities that protect the forest and its inhabitants.
Guests go with Wildlife Alliance's rangers on patrol, replant native trees in degraded forests and help set up camera traps designed to catch illegal loggers and poachers. Profits from the camp contribute to the salaries of forest rangers who protect the area from threats.
Conservation success requires stakeholders to come together with a common goal. And, it is imperative to strengthen conservation strategies for the longevity of the conservation tourism industry. By working together, we can build a future where the beauty of nature is preserved for generations to come, and tourism serves as a force for good.