Back in the days when the Asian tourist trail was the preserve of the intrepid – or the privileged – few, there was little comprehension of the term “responsible tourism”. Back then, the lack of numbers meant that the travel industry, with its sheer smallness of scale, left a relatively miniscule footprint on the destinations it touched.
On paradise islands such as Koh Samui in Thailand and Bali in Indonesia, proceeds from the trickle of backpackers renting beach huts and eating simple local meals would tend to go directly back into the community. Meanwhile, major destinations such as the temples at Angkor and the Royal city of Luang Prabang saw a fraction of the traffic that they do now.
Of course, nobody can halt progress, and it would be amiss to say that tourism has not had an overwhelmingly positive impact on the livelihood of locals. However, the yearly upsurge in tourist numbers – and the pressures these crowds place on often-creaking infrastructure, natural habitats, cost of living, and traditional ways of life – means that welcome emphasis is being placed on sustainable travel.
So what exactly is responsible tourism? There are so many strands to responsible (or sustainable) tourism that it can be tough to pin it down to an easily classifiable definition. A good summation is that it is the concept of visiting a destination as a tourist and trying to make only a positive impact on the environment, society and economy.
In Asia there are numerous ways to make a positive difference as a visitor. The region is home to some of the most visually spectacular land and seascapes on the planet, as well as some of the world’s most welcoming people. Conversely, precious eco-systems lead an often-precarious existence while the blight of poverty makes life a struggle for many.
Many visitors to the region choose to independently ensure that their trip is as sustainable as possible. Steps towards doing this include: offsetting carbon emissions on long haul flights to learning a few words of the local language, buying local produce and goods whenever possible and learning about products that are illegally traded or endangered to ensure you don’t inadvertently buy them.
For other visitors, investing in an experience with a company such as EXO Travel, which is renowned for its commitment to responsible travel, is a more sure-fire way of ensuring that their trip is of as much benefit as possible.
As part of our efforts to be as sustainable as possible, we are working tirelessly towards Travelife Certification – a training, management and certification initiative for tourism companies committed to reaching sustainability. EXO Travel is the first company to be Travelife certified in Cambodia and Vietnam – Thailand, Laos and Myanmar shall be next.
“I feel so proud about what EXO is doing now, putting an enormous effort into becoming a more sustainable company,” enthuses Nguyen Thi Thu Thuy, a Travel Consultant with EXO Travel Vietnam.
“With Travelife’s guidance and strong support, the entire team is getting more excited than ever before to act responsibly. We are learning good habits and do so mindfully. We are caring about bigger issues than simply our own personal lives. It’s a long and difficult journey, but I’m happy we have started right.”
Responsible experiences can have a positive impact in numerous ways.
Laos is consistently geared towards long-form sustainable experiences. Highlights here include eco-trekking outside the capital Vientiane, an odyssey around Luang Prabang on an electronic bike and opportunities to participate in traditional activities such as rice planting and panning for gold in the Mekong River.
Closed to visitors for decades, Myanmar is one of the hottest destinations in the region right now. Openness brings its own pitfalls, however, and efforts are required to ensure that the country’s tourism industry develops in a sustainable fashion. On an epic journey around the country guests can encounter individuals and organisations doing their best to preserve the culture and help the needy, while also witnessing unforgettable highlights such as Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda, the temples at Bagan and the stunning Inle Lake.
In Vietnam a charitable tour in Central Vietnam gives guests the opportunity to see the historic and natural marvels of destinations such as Hue and Hoi An. Along the way they can also learn about local traditions and livelihoods such as kite-making, visit medical institutions that provide vital assistance to sick and disabled children and take part in painting classes with the Lifestart Foundation – a non-profit charity helping the disadvantaged obtain vocational livelihoods through handicraft.
Bali has long been regarded as a “conscious” destination, and the island has a wealth of eco-friendly options. An eco-harmony experience gives guests the opportunity to stay in sustainable retreats, visit less-travelled areas and cycle through traditional villages to natural hot springs.
While longer experiences can perhaps provide a more immersive experience, visitors with less time to spare can partake in a number of shorter responsible tours in the region.
In Thailand, visitors can get a glimpse of traditional village life at Mae Kampong just outside Chiang Mai. A simple lunch is made with produce from the local market while hand-made artisanal products are available in the village.
Wildlife conservation is a hugely important strand of sustainable tourism. An hour’s drive from Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh is Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, the world’s largest sanctuary for sun bears, where the Free the Bears project has educated hundreds of thousands of Cambodians about the threats facing the country’s wild bear population.
Whether it is an all-out journey, or an element of a trip, responsible tourism allows visitors to contribute throughout their holidays to the sustainable development of a destination – along with the wellbeing of the local people – giving back to a region that is never anything less than generous in what it gives to tourists.
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