Better tourism dispersal is a vital principle for the travel industry to embrace in Southeast Asia. It needs to be done properly to ensure the long-term prosperity of people, planet and profit in the destinations we visit in that wonderful part of the world.
At the moment too many resources are being funneled into iconic landmarks and places such as Phuket, Angkor Wat, Ha Long Bay and Bagan. These destinations are on top of traveler bucket lists for good reason. But we need to take into account the watered-down experience some visitors are currently receiving in these places.
The partially negative impact that large visitors numbers are taking on these iconic sites could be mitigated by taking guests to equally impressive destinations that receive a fraction of the visitors. Both hosts and guests would be winners.
Take Cambodia. It concerns me that three million international visitors will crowd around Angkor Wat this year wearing away precious stone carvings and fueling a manic building boom in Siem Reap. However, villagers near the very impressive Khmer ruins in Sambor Prei Kuk and Banteay Chhmar receive just a few dozen each month.
It’s the same in Myanmar. Thousands of tourists crowd key temples in the ancient heritage town of Bagan. However, just beyond the 800-year old ruins, villagers are struggling to obtain a clean and steady supply of water. The villagers outside Bagan embody the true spirit of the Myanmar people, yet few tourists visit.
Is this to say we need to stop sending people to the magnificent ruins of Bagan? No. The itinerary should be Bagan plus some of its outlying villages (where visitors can donate a small amount of cash to fund water wells).
In short, we need to spread the love.
So what to do about it? Well, capping hotel development in saturated places and incentivizing investment in areas of sparse development would be a good start. (The Asian Development Bank, for one, is empathetic to funding infrastructure that supports community-based tourism).
Also, we need to help create and promote more imaginative use of tourism “routes.” For example, create and market imaginative overland routes linking Bangkok to Angkor Wat, Sukhothai to Yangon, or from Luang Prabang to Vietnam. Easier access to the portions of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam would also take tourists up country further off the beaten track.
All of us in the travel industry have a responsibility to educate visitors on all the wondrous experiences they could have beyond existing tourism hot spots. Don’t just sell the familiar. Tourists go to the familiar because that is all they see on brochures, websites and travel books.
Our clients in Southeast Asia should explore roads less taken. But they won’t know the way unless we give them the directions.
This article was submitted by Michael Healy, General Manager for Khiri USA.