I'm writing this on the eve of what should’ve been a flight to Pakistan, ahead of travelling along the spectacular Karakoram highway, and trekking amongst the foothills of K2. To say that I'm a little bit gutted by the cancellation would be a mountainous understatement.
People's safety and wellbeing are paramount, and have been my unerring focus over the past few months, from getting clients home just in time before quarantines locked down Asia, to working out how to retain as many of the excellent Selective Asia team as I can, once furlough support comes to an end. We're now a considerably downsized operation, and my hat is off for those who aren't returning; they leave a sizeable void in our company and our culture.
There's something about that horizon, though. We've all endured weeks of reacting to immediate events, in the moment...after moment...after moment... But we've also had the chance to reflect on what the future might look like.
I’ve read a great deal of commentary about how we’ll go about life in better ways after lockdown. I’ve read with interest (and equal hope) the travel media’s predictions that we 'will' make fewer trips but travel for longer... and how we 'will’ make each trip count, putting greater value into thoughtful planning.
I’ve been told that travel 'will' be more sustainable... that the planet will be able to carry on up that path to recovery that it found itself on when our transport stopped. We’ve all noticed the clarity of the sky, the birdsong, the wildlife (random squirrels in your urban kitchen, anyone?), the fresher air. Equally enticing is the prospect of the Angkor Temples and other bucket-list big hitters having minimal crowds for the months and years ahead.
All these predictions are lovely to imagine, and ideals certainly make for an uplifting read. And to be fair to the journalists, it’s difficult to do anything but speculate when you’re playing a waiting game. Imagining a better future gives many of us the hope and energy to stay in the fight and be part of the improvement — to be the change you want to see, as a certain M Gandhi so inspiringly put it.
However — with the grubby elastic band of everyday life already snapping back into its well worn rut — something is nagging at the back of my mind. I really really want us all to come out of 2020 with more sustainable, respectful, resilient ways of living. But the tough truth is that none of it will happen by magic. Covid-19 has changed a lot of things, but it’s not going to automatically make humankind more thoughtful, less impulsive, or less aspirational. It’s not going to take away the need for people to pay their rent or support their families. If we’re going to carry any silver linings from 2020 into the future, we need to collectively step up our game.
Much has been written about lockdown’s benefits to the climate in recent months, alongside predictions that our post-lockdown, socially distanced commutes will undo all the progress due to a greater reliance on cars. There’s also concern that any significant reduction to planned investment in sustainable transport will derail (boom tish - I’m back!) prior shifts in the correct direction.
As a company, Selective Asia is determined to ensure that the 'reset' forced upon us is used to the best possible effect, with sustainability planted at the very heart of the operation. It has been our growing focus for well over decade, but this is our chance to ensure that it becomes a core consideration in everything we do. But our business model and our travel philosophy both allow this; our clients value a considered approach. Other companies depend on selling the cheap seats (or whatever) at the lowest possible margins, leaving the wider cost to be shouldered by the rest of us.
I’m not saying 'such is life'. Many of their customers could save up for a little bit longer and travel less often, in a more sustainable way. But if they are going to even consider doing that, sustainability needs to become a global aspiration, and not just a luxury for the better off. We all need to get behind the idea that treating our habitat with respect is the correct, cool, only way to be. And that risks seeming a little bit preachy when you’re asking people to deprive themselves in the short term, even if it will lead to something much more satisfying in the long run.
There are some signs that the covid situation will bring about meaningful improvement — Air France’s government bailout, for instance, is dependent on their delivery of real and sustainable change to their operations in a very short window of time. But a lot of people have been stuck in their homes for months now, and by all accounts many are desperate for a change of scene — even if that means taking a deep breath and getting on a plane.
It’s crucial to remember that sustainability isn’t just about holiday travel. It surprises me how many people place high value on environmental impact when they’re going abroad, but still maintain a lifestyle at home that puts their carbon footprint at three or four times that of the global average. I challenge you to look at your impact on our habitat in as holistic a way as you possibly can. We’re all going to have an effect on our shared habitat, wherever we are on its surface — let’s make sure it’s a high value one.
Amidst all the angst of the last few months, we’ve occasionally comforted ourselves with dreamy visions of Asia’s headline attractions without the crowds. Assuming that it would take a while for traveller confidence to return, we fantasised about strolling the ramparts of Galle Fort amongst local residents instead of our own compatriots. (Not that we don’t enjoy your company — we just prefer to fully dunk ourselves in other cultures, instead of staying inside a bubble of our own.)
However, once the rose-tinted Ray-Bans are removed, there’s no real reason to assume that covid will ‘solve’ overtourism. Many holiday-makers have rebooked their 2020 trips for 2021, and — believe it or not — we’re already getting availability problems for next year. We presently have more forward bookings for 2021 than we've ever had in the middle of the previous year.
Much as their is clearly serious work to be done in this arena (and achievable solutions we are committed to be part of) and tempting as a drop in visitor numbers might seem, it would have grave implications for many of Asia’s people. The total contribution of travel & tourism to global GDP was 10.4% in 2019. In Southeast Asia it was closer to 13%, and in some countries more - Cambodia, for instance, depends on tourism for 20% of its income. Nikkei Inc predicts that the drop in tourism due to covid will knock between a quarter and 50% off the ASEAN core GDP.
For what should be obvious reasons (if you’re unsure, the UN Sustainable Development Goals are a good place to start), we heartily support the reduction of poverty. Especially if it’s via residents creating and retaining control over their own means of self-sustenance. Many parts of Asia do not have social security, and tourism is an obvious way for enterprising residents to draw wealth into their communities.
It also can (and does) bring overcrowding, and other negatives such as pollution, erosion, strain on resources. But so many people depend on it, and we believe that the answer lies in tourism redistribution, rather than simply removal.
Selective Asia’s approach has always been to balance the equation by encouraging visitors to head beyond the hotspots, spreading both the footfall and the income more fairly across the region. Just because a site is famous doesn’t mean it’s the only bit of a country worth seeing. In fact, overcrowding can make a place worth avoiding, and we find ourselves talking people out of visiting so-called ‘must sees’ such as Halong Bay, and sending them instead to far less popular places of equivalent beauty and interest.
It’s true, though, that today’s ‘hidden gems’ risk becoming the next hotspots. Overtourism will only come under control when we all focus on seeking the essence of a culture, instead of blindly following the guidebook ‘top tens’.
The current focus on inter-racial attitudes and colonial legacies has prompted us to question our own assumptions. It’s easy to get too comfortable and assume that we’re doing things correctly — after all, we work closely with residents in our destinations, champion ethical enterprise, offer raw insight to our clients, and prefer real communities to the tourist-friendly edits of a given culture. What could possibly go wrong? But of course we’re discovering blind spots, and instances of passing on ‘the done thing’ instead of questioning whether it should be done at all.
Much of Asia has a heavy colonial legacy, with few of its states untouched, in recent centuries, by western and eastern dominators. A number of luxurious tourism products invoke nostalgic fantasies — tea on the tropical lawn, polished heritage railways with privileged views over plantation landscapes, dinner with an apprentice geisha. And we’ve unquestioningly offered these experiences — partly as cultural insight, but of course it’s as much because they’re what some clients ask for.
Nevertheless, the imbalance of power associated with this era is something that we believe belongs in the past. Whilst we can never be absolutely sure that everyone involved in a project is treated fairly and with respect, we can stay alert and do our own looking, our own research behind the scenes, instead of taking the PR line for granted.
Like history, tourist board literature is often written by the victor. Even where minority rights are acknowledged, ethnicity is sometimes sold as a tourist attraction. You’ll see the term ‘minority ethnic groups’ marketed in a positive light throughout the Asia tourism world, our own website included. The phrase is a kind of industry shorthand for ‘cultures that are distinctive’, but there’s something else going on that could do with some light thrown upon it. There are a lot of questions, whose answers depend on context, and there are many more than we have scope for here — but it’s an interesting discussion, and one I’m keen to have.
Another questionable ‘covid will…’ has been doing the rounds — the assertion that carefully planned travel will become more highly valued. At first glance, it makes perfect sense. If you’re heading back out on your holidays after the uncertainty of 2020, surely you’ll want your trip to be carefully planned by an expert operator (ahem…) with thorough knowledge of your destination, boots on the ground to assist you if anything unexpected occurs, and logistical experts capable of orchestrating last-minute changes if necessary. Nudge, nudge.
However… for travel operators, 2020 has so far been mayhem, with authorities, underwriters and airlines often doing their utmost to sidestep liability and leave it all on our shoulders. Yes, I am bitter about it — and along with the game of financial hot potato, there’s a blame game happening, too. I’m concerned that the fallout will overwhelm the public’s need to work with people they can trust.
So many people and industries have suffered over these past months, each have their own challenges and barriers as we look to the future. In my world, there are numerous reasons why travel operators have struggled to refund everybody, and in many ways the regulations have left us high and dry. Airlines have carte blanche to avoid cash refunds; we’re being asked to refund flights that the airlines haven’t refunded us for. We’re also required to return monies for bookings with hotels and operators that are shut down and uncontactable due to lockdown. Our customers always come first, and consumer confidence is of course essential, however there needs to balance and we will be eternally grateful for our many clients who have been so understanding of this.
I seem to have co-opted this particular challenge into a rant. As a business owner, though — especially one who’s just had to make many great employees redundant — it’s impossible not to raise more than an eyebrow in response to some commentators’ insistence that ‘covid will…’ actually be a good thing for tour operators. Of course I hope they’re right, and I believe it is achievable, but not without a heck of a lot of collaboration.
As we redefine Selective Asia and discover what lies ahead, I'd like to codify our commitments as a company, as an industry, and if it's not too audacious, as a global community. Rather than assuming that Covid-19 and its associated events 'will' automatically bring about any particular beneficial changes, it's absolutely all our responsibilities to make them happen. If we don't, I predict that we'll slide back into the same old story. Nothing changes if nothing changes.
Myself and the entire SA team remain committed to focusing on finding solutions to these challenges and many more, and we are driven to ensure that we turn what has been a very negative, unsettling time into a long-term positive. The launch of Low Touch Travel is just a start and we're extremely excited when we think of progress we can make in the months to come.