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Balancing sustainability, wealth

Under the shimmering turquoise waters, vibrant-coloured corals pulse with life as marine life weaves through what was, for a while, a scene of unprecedented blight. Thailand's Maya Bay is experiencing a resurgence following a four-year closure. Behind that transformation from a damaging symbol of overtourism to a beacon of sustainable travel in Southeast Asia, lies a cautionary tale of how tourism can leave a trail of destruction.

Tourism, which accounts for 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions that are expected to double by 2050, stands at a crossroads today. The mounting sense of urgency on the climate crisis has presented Southeast Asian policymakers with a tough balancing act. The travel sector is also a key economic driver that contributes to 12% of the region’s gross domestic product and 11% of employment across Emerging Asia — comprising Asean, India and China. As such, this year’s World Tourism Day theme gave the industry a timely reminder of the blend for success: tourism and green investments. Southeast Asia, with its myriad of environmental initiatives aimed at driving both sustainability and growth, is ready to take the lead.

Varying success

Indonesia’s planned revitalisation of its iconic Borobudur Temple is one example of a sustainable effort taking shape. Improving the quality of tourism is high on the list. This involves not just attracting visitors but educating them on the diversity of the country’s offering, encouraging people to extend their stays and promoting responsible tourism.

Together, these actions balance tourist numbers, the local economy, as well as the temple, ensuring longevity for the cultural site. But success stories do not occur overnight. Over in East Nusa Tenggara, the government’s planned entry fee hike for the Komodo National Park received a backlash from local tour operators who feared the cost would drive tourists away. The idea of preserving the environment by generating a conservation fund may have sounded feasible, but a near 25-time fare increase did not gel with sentiments on the ground. A common consensus between all stakeholders is crucial for sustainability efforts to take flight.

Going green together

People are central to the travel industry’s success, be it employees, operators or consumers. Cambodia is putting its trust in its citizens, having announced in July that it would provide training to upskill workers from the tourism industry. While we champion sustainability, it must be paired with robust growth. Without revenue, destinations will face difficulties when it comes to investing in sustainable activities. The strategy seeks to improve travel experiences in the country and also defines a sustainable economic model. Investing in communities and empowering them with the skills to reshape tourism that respects both nature and cultural heritage lays the foundation for a more resilient economy.

Southeast Asia can take that investment to the next level by building infrastructure that promotes sustainability. For instance, popular Singapore hotspot Sentosa was recently the first island destination in Asia recognised for its green efforts — a testament to its decarbonisation and waste management solutions that are spearheading carbon-neutral goals.

Substantive actions like these are music to the ears of those looking to include sustainability in their trips. With Sentosa recording 13 million visitors from April 2022 to March 2023, up 38% from the year before, there is potential to soar even higher as a bona fide sustainable destination. As the industry rebuilds from the pandemic’s impact, green practices must become the blueprint rather than an afterthought. They mark a positive step for those looking to recover and provide a solid foundation for the industry to prosper rather than revert to its pre-Covid trajectory of environmental degradation.

A moment of reflection

However, despite the commitment to environmentally friendly practices, Southeast Asia has experienced a 7% decrease in green capital since 2021. With investments slowing, the region needs better incentives to drive environmental practices and attract alternative financial streams. These could come in the form of tax breaks for eco-tourism projects, grants for sustainability-focused startups or even government subsidies for tourists who choose sustainable travel options.

What’s vital is tying these incentives to green practices. The industry has two responsibilities: protect the planet and enable economic recovery by attracting and retaining funding. Without one or the other, the industry will lack the means to perpetuate a virtuous cycle of sustainable growth.

World Tourism Day invites us to reflect on the balance between prosperity and preservation, as seen in Maya Bay’s journey. Rapid recovery may be tempting, but there is long-term potential in sustainable tourism.

With its unique blend of nature and culture, Southeast Asia can lead the way in showing that growth and sustainability are not mutually exclusive. We are on the edge of a future where our collective wanderlust doesn’t jeopardise the destinations we love to explore. By bringing these elements together, we can not only revive tourism in Southeast Asia but reimagine how we explore the region whilst protecting its allure.


Caesar Indra is president, Traveloka. The article marks World Tourism Day on Sept 27.

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