The local touch


Guests try sustainable kite building with Uncle Kite during Hivesters' train trip from Hua Lamphong to Hua Takhe.
Guests try sustainable kite building with Uncle Kite during Hivesters’ train trip from Hua Lamphong to Hua Takhe.

The pandemic hit the tourism industry the hardest, which is expected to take several years to fully recover. Yet some folks are looking at this period as an opportunity to accelerate the move towards sustainability.

The recent “Top Countries for Sustainable Tourism” report from market researcher Euromonitor International found 66.4% of consumers globally want to contribute a positive impact on the environment through their daily actions in 2021.

Only 50% of tourism businesses are committed to engaging with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, a global development agenda for 2015-2030, which includes implementing a sustainability strategy into their business plans.

Thailand ranked 76th out of 99 countries in Euromonitor’s Sustainable Travel Index, meaning an upgrade to sustainable considerations could help restart the industry once the pandemic is controlled.

BEYOND THE PANDEMIC

“The pandemic catalysed a growing trend in responsible tourism as people’s mindset was overwhelmed by the uncertainty in life. The deadly virus made them realise that life is short,” said Kaewta Muangasame, a lecturer in the Tourism and Hospitality Management Division, Mahidol University International College.

The crisis raised awareness of the impact of climate change and the importance of environmental protection, said Ms Kaewta.

Tourists tend to care more for nature, in line with a rise in eco-adventure tourism that includes surfing, diving, hiking, star-gazing and birdwatching. These bring them closer to nature, she said.

These types of activities can help travellers spend time to think about life away from their daily routine.

“Travellers seek unique and meaningful experiences to learn and see things in a responsible manner. This includes creating positive changes, moving away from mass tourism as seen in the pre-Covid era,” Ms Kaewta said.

ABOVE  A tourist learns how to perform the Chatree dance with a local master at Nang Loeng community.

More tourists are looking for a chance to give back to society, including community-based tourism where they can learn about cultural heritage and preservation.

Another example is volunteer tourism, helping those in need by joining non-governmental organisations, she said.

Ms Kaewta said health-related activities and services such as forest bathing, hot springs and wellness centres are a growing trend as people feel stressed that their lives are under threat from illness, both physical and mental.

In that same vein, spiritual tourism has gained in popularity among locals visiting sacred places or conducting spiritual practices in the hope of adding more prosperity to their lives.

She said the domestic tourism boom spawned by the legend of “egg boy” at Wat Chedi Ai Khai in Nakhon Si Thammarat last year proves the need for spiritual and mental support during the heavy economic slump caused by the pandemic.

Local tourists also yearn for the past to escape from the current crisis, said Ms Kaewta. Nostalgia tourism has become popular, where people visit vintage homes or old markets to reminisce about the good old days.

EMBRACING EXPERIENCES

There is no fixed formula for a successful tourism plan to lure the domestic market, but operators can adapt to trends by enhancing their experiences.

Achiraya Thamparipattra, chief executive and co-founder of Hivesters, a tourism social enterprise that aims to promote local cultures, said European tourists especially want to travel more sustainably and focus on how operators run trips.

LEFT  A vintage Thai perfumery flower garland workshop with a local artisan.

The key is to get communities involved and take part in the zero waste movement, such as banning plastic use during trips and in hotels, she said.

Tourists are craving more local experience, which is a trend that started before the outbreak, said Ms Achiraya.

Hivesters offers tourists unique local wisdom from more than 200 locals in 19 destinations nationwide. It aims to preserve 84 local traditions and handicrafts, such as the Chatree dance at Nang Loeng community and vintage pillows from Talat Noi.

“Some 70% of our tourism revenue is contributed to communities and 5% donated to cultural foundations,” she said.

Ms Achiraya said the company also developed more holistic and wellness options to serve guests.

New wellness routes include a natural detox in Chiang Mai, where tourists can learn about the livelihood of the Tai Lue at Baan Luang Nua community and discover plant-based local dishes.

However, the company has shifted to the local market and expatriates working for corporations, while keeping in contact with foreign customers awaiting the Thai government to reopen borders, she said.

Product design and pricing have to meet domestic demand, as this group loves fun activities, shopping and above all else, taking photos and sharing them via social media, said Ms Achiraya.

Online tourism content inspires tourists to travel for a similar experience, hoping to match the thrill of a sport such as surfing that went viral among local tourists last year, said Bill Barnett, managing director of C9 Hotelworks.

“Khao Lak’s surf scene has become a national social media sensation, with Pakarang Beach and Memories Beach Bar as the epicentre of a photo tourism movement,” he said.

In addition to surfing, local travellers also enjoy visiting photogenic hotels, southern Thai restaurants listed in the Michelin Guide, and the community at Takua Pa Old Town, said Mr Barnett.

“Khao Lak and Phangnga are well-positioned as a destination, given their unique sense of space, nature and the emergence of sports and cultural tourism elements,” he said.

Khao Lak has 114 registered hotels with 9,542 rooms, and another 2,283 rooms in the pipeline according to a report by C9 Hotelworks.

Surfers at Memories Beach, which is a famous surf spot at Pakarang Beach in Khao Lak. Surfing is one of the popular activities for travellers as it helps them to connect with nature.

Some 73% of hotels in the pipeline are under global chains including Pullman, Marriott, Sheraton, Avani and Holiday Inn. A full 63% of hotels serve the upscale segment.

According to the Tourism and Sports Ministry, Phangnga welcomed 1.21 million tourists in 2020, down by 75.3%, generating 11.7 billion baht in tourism receipts, a decrease of 77.3% year-on-year.

Of those figures, 638,824 were domestic travellers, a plunge of 55.5%, while international arrivals fell by 83.4% to 574,597.

The occupancy rate for Khao Lak hotels in 2020 closed at 21.9%, down from 64.6% in 2019.

The government’s subsidy scheme that helped absorb costs for accommodations and airfare helped the occupancy rate last year, even though sales were tepid in the domestic market, said Mr Barnett.



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