As ‘the future’ of travel, sustainable tourism ‘not option but investment’

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Cambodia’s Shinta Mani Wild has attracted much global media attention for its sustainability. SUPPLIED

With the travel industry increasingly placing emphasis on sustainable tourism, Mark Bibby Jackson – travel writer and founder of the Travel Begins at 40 website – outlines recent developments and its importance as ‘the ultimate feel good factor’.

The Preah Sihanouk provincial authorities have placed a great deal of importance on sustainability as part of the recent master plan. Why is sustainability so important?

Sustainability is vital everywhere. I was talking with a friend who works in investment, and he said how sustainability is not an option, it is an investment. If you are looking to the future then you have to consider sustainability now.

This applies as much to Sihanoukville as to the rest of Cambodia, and the world. So the authorities and all those working in tourism need to take sustainability seriously.

Why has sustainable tourism become so important recently?

Sustainable tourism quite simply is the future. This has become more evident with the Covid-19 pandemic. People realise that the climate crisis is real, and they want their travel to do some good, rather than be exploitative.

Many surveys in the West have shown how sustainability and responsibility are key factors that people are considering when booking their holidays. Now the question is not just how to minimise our negative impact, but how to maximise the good we can do when travelling.

What benefits does it bring both the traveller and the business operator?

Business operators benefit from sustainable tourism because it is the future. Really, those who are going to survive will embrace sustainability and those who don’t will fail.

You can become sustainable from ethical considerations or from good business sense. Regardless, you have no alternative.

As for travellers, we all go on holiday to feel better, otherwise we would just stay at home. Sustainable travel is the ultimate feel good factor.

It makes you believe that through travelling somewhere you are actually benefiting both the local community and the planet. It is also a much more rewarding travel experience. I have stayed at many a five-star resort and ultimately they all feel the same. However, if you actually engage in a meaningful way with the local community then you will discover that your travel experience is much more rewarding. Sustainability is the new luxury travel.

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Mark Bibby Jackson. SUPPLIED

What have been recent developments globally in sustainable tourism?

I guess the most recent trend is towards regenerative travel rather than sustainability. This might sound like splitting hairs, but behind it is the concept that you actually improve situations – regenerate – rather than simply preserve the status quo – sustainability. I think that it is an important shift of perspective.

Also, I have been studying Climate Friendly Travel at SUNx Malta. Behind this is the realisation that our travel has to go beyond simple sustainability. Roughly half of the travel industry’s carbon emissions arise from how we travel to places, rather than what we do once we get there. People are becoming increasingly aware of their carbon footprint.

For destinations such as Cambodia where the only realistic option for Western travellers is to arrive by plane – with sustainable aviation fuels still being upscaled and hydrogen planes more than a decade away – the only realistic option is to offset our travel, despite all the problems with that.

I offset all my fights, including my recent visit to Cambodia, and use the train whenever possible while travelling in Europe.

And in Cambodia?

I was impressed by the movement towards sustainable tourism and ecotourism in Cambodia.

While upmarket projects such as Shinta Mani Wild understandably attract much of the global media attention, there are some wonderful community-based ecotourism – CBET – projects in the country, where people can stay at homestays.

These are beneficial for the environment and communities alike as well as giving travellers a priceless taste of what rural life in Cambodia is genuinely like. These have suffered greatly due to Covid, although this has conversely also led to a growth in domestic tourism.

Ecotourism has also enabled parts of Cambodia especially in the Cardamom Mountains to be preserved when otherwise it might have been destroyed due to land concessions.

Wildlife Alliance is doing a wonderful job in preserving Cambodian wildlife, and the Cardamom Tented Camp represents a wonderful shining light as to how ecotourism in Cambodia should be done.

Are there any major developments on the horizon regarding sustainable tourism in the Kingdom?

I think the key thing is to try to get the travel sector to work together to promote Cambodia as a destination in its own right. For too long it has been seen as an add-on to Thailand or Vietnam.

There is so much to see and do in Cambodia that two weeks is simply not enough. For 2022 and perhaps 2023, travellers will not be going to multiple destinations – it is too complex and risky.

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Sustainable tourism benefits local communities. Hong Menea

Therefore Cambodia has to be promoted as a single destination. I know that an online campaign will be launched in order to achieve this.

Personally, I have been trying to promote the idea of STaRT Cambodia – Sustainable Tourism and Responsible Travel. The idea is to unite the ecotourism/sustainable sector together to promote the country as a sustainable destination.

We already have a business plan, and have developed ideas for a publicity campaign and website, which will ultimately be self-funding for the STaRT network of sustainable tourism and ecotourist enterprises. We are now seeking support and a modest financial injection to start STaRT.

I recently went on a Cambodia FAM (familiarisation) trip, organised by the Ministry of Environment with support from the World Bank as part of the CSLEP – the Cardamom Sustainable Landscape and Ecotourism Project – which provided wonderful insight into what is happening in the Kingdom.

What would you say to anyone in the tourism industry who is hesitating to embrace sustainability?

It’s the future – you really don’t have any choice. All the travel surveys are indicating post-Covid that sustainability is a major travel priority.

Climate change is real, and as we develop there will be more and more restrictions placed on what we can and cannot do. It’s far better to get ahead of the game than play catch-up.

What is the future for sustainable travel?

With due respect, that is not the right question. Sustainable travel is the future. The future of travel is sustainability.

Unless Cambodia, or anywhere else, realises this, it will lose out to other more visionary tourist destinations.