Vibrant tourism in the Andaman Sea in the South before Covid-19 struck.

Biodiversity-based tourism and the way ahead to revitalize economy and environment

The global economy has been facing unprecedented upheaval as the COVID-19 pandemic runs rampant. The tourism sector is among the worst affected due to lockdowns disrupting travel. But the crisis has also created an opportunity for the country to review and recalibrate its environmentally harmful model, and turn the focus to biodiversity-based tourism to make it far more sustainable, writes Dr. Petch Manopawitr

The COVID crisis has plunged the global economy into recession, the tourism sector being particularly hit hard by travel disruptions. In 2019, Thailand had earned 3 trillion baht as revenue from tourism, or about 18% of gross domestic product (GDP). However, it is undeniable that the expansion of the tourism industry in recent years has taken a heavy toll on the country’s natural resources and environment.

Reviving the sector after the pandemic will need to focus on new forms of high-yield tourism while increasing income distribution and having lesser environmental impacts. This is in line with the BCG (Bio-Circular-Green Economy) economic model and the Green Recovery approach the government is pursuing to revitalise the economy while solving the existing social and environmental problems.

One way is to push for biodiversity-based tourism, which gives importance to nature capital and promotes a “new normal” tourism model in accordance with the principles of sustainable development.

Thailand has very high tourism potential. In 2019, nearly 40 million foreign tourists visited the country, the 11th highest in the world. According to the Tourism Competitiveness Assessment Report by the World Economic Forum, Thailand is ranked 10th for natural resource value, 17th for aviation infrastructure and 21st for tourist service infrastructure among 140 countries. However, our ranking plummets to 130th on the issue of environmental sustainability, reinforcing the fact that we have strengths in various aspects, including the infrastructure and services, but have completely failed in environmental management.

In 2012, the Ministry of Tourism and Sports developed the first National Tourism Development Plan (2012-2016) to improve the quality of tourism services and balance between supply and demand. The tourism market has grown by more than 15%, exceeding the target in five years. The second plan, which runs from 2017 and will end this year, has pursued the mission of the first plan while further pushing the tourism market to be aligned with the trend of sustainable development.

This can be seen from the latest strategy of the Special Areas Development Administration for Sustainable Tourism, which aims to develop a sustainable tourism model and promote community-based tourism so as to meet international standards.

Similarly, the 7 Greens concept, or green tourism, has been initiated by the Tourism Authority of Thailand to promote sustainable tourism. It includes “Green Heart”, which is an awareness-raising campaign introduced among tourists, “Green Travel” model to promote carbon reduction, Green Tourism Attraction, which tries to brand an environmentally friendly attraction, “Green Activities” to support a variety of tourism activities without degrading nature, “Green Communities” to promote community participation in sustainable tourism management, Green Services to support entrepreneurs who care about environmental impacts, and “Green Plus” to promote social and environmental responsibility to reduce the impacts of various tourism activities.

PM Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha and his Cabinet during the recent trip to the South to try to boost tourism in the area with new tourism infrastructure projects introduced as part of the government’s policy of reopening the country. It remains to be seen whether the directive will hit success and be sustainable in the long run.

Despite a comprehensive strategy and framework, it appears that the success of the green tourism concept remains limited to pilot projects, or a small number of pilot areas. Many popular natural attractions continue to suffer from an oversupply of tourists, rubbish, pollution, and wastewater that multiply problems and impacts for wildlife or protected areas, or communities, exceeding the capacity of local organisations or governments to deal with it.

In addition, there are cases of encroachment of forest areas for the construction of accommodation, hotels, resorts, which have been reported in the media from time to time.

As natural resources deteriorate,  government agencies responsible for the protection of resources, especially the National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation Department are left with little choice but to close areas that have tourist value. This can be seen in the case of Koh Tachai in Similan Islands National Park, Maya Bay in Hat Nopparat Thara – Phi Phi Islands National Park, or illegal construction and encroachment of illegal resorts on the island of Adang inside Koh Tarutao National Park.

In view of concerns among agencies under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, tourism activities are therefore viewed as major threats to biodiversity. As can be seen from the latest National Report on Biodiversity B.E. 2019 (No. 6), various sectors are addressed as lacking tools and integration that will lead to sustainable use of biodiversity, especially mechanisms and tools to monitor the impacts of tourism activities.

The report also points out that internationally standardized biodiversity protection measures should be developed and introduced, taking into account the sensitivity of ecosystems and other threat factors such as climate change.

Is it possible to turn tourism into an important tool for conservation, build community involvement, and promote sustainable development at the grassroots level?

Few visitors spotted in Khao Yai National Park during the first round of Covid-19 outbreaks last year.

Biodiversity based tourism

The answer to this question can be seen in the fact that Thailand is among the countries with the highest biodiversity in the world. It’s a relatively small country, but it ranks in the world’s top 16 when considering the diversity of vertebrates and perennials. There are diverse ecosystems ranging from forests, mountains, islands, coastal and marine areas to the original agricultural ecosystem. We have about 100 million rai (160,000 million hectares) of forest land or about 32% of total land area, about 150 million rai (240,000 million hectares) of agricultural land or 46%, and up to 11 million rai (17,600 hectares) of wetlands, or 3% of total land area.

This does not include over 3,000 kilometres of coastline and nearly 1,000 large and small islands. These areas are prime biodiversity conservation sites with potential for tourism development.

Of course, not every natural area has the potential to be developed as a tourist attraction. First and foremost, the area needs to be preserved, protected and managed. Another key strength of Thailand in this regard is the protected area system, which is more advanced than many Asian countries, and it can be said that it is not behind many other countries.

We have a protected area covering about 17% of the land area and approximately 6% of the country’s marine area. This includes 147 national parks, 58 wildlife sanctuaries, 67 non-hunting areas and 120 forest parks. Much of these conservation areas are surrounded by agricultural land and continue to face pressure to use them in a variety of ways, especially change of the original ecosystem, infrastructure development, road construction cutting through forests, reservoir construction, and the development of tourism areas.

Biodiversity-based tourism will definitely help integrate biodiversity conservation into the tourism sector. It will enable communities to benefit from biodiversity-based tourism activities, such as dominant wildlife species, attractive bird species around accommodation, special plant species and herbs. That means every activity concerned will embrace the value of biodiversity, and the status of biodiversity will help indicate the success of tourism.

Making biodiversity a point of entry and an added value will help communities realize the importance of conservation. Simply put, biodiversity can generate income for local villagers, which is an important motivation for nature conservation. For instance, it can help reduce conflicts between people and wildlife in the area.

Introducing wildlife-watching tourism in protected areas with community participation is one approach in which success has been visible, such as spotting wild elephants and gaurs under the concept of “Thai Safari” at Kui Buri National Park, in Prachuap Khiri Khan Province.

Following such an idea, the Kuiburi Wildlife Conservation Tourism Club has been established. Wild Elephant Kuiburi homestays and tour guide training have been promoted. Villagers who have had conflicts with elephants due to crop damage are starting to see a way of coexistence with elephants. Both opportunities for tourism activities, accommodation, and land use modifications are more sustainable than the monoculture that attracts elephants, such as growing pineapple.

Another popular example is the construction of artificial water sources in protected forest areas for birds and wildlife so they can use them during the dry season. Alongside, the construction of bunkers to facilitate wildlife watching can allow tourists to watch their behaviour and take close-up photos. In the old days, these outer areas were truly the danger zones for wildlife. Because, if wild animals accidentally left the protected areas at any time, they were at risk of being hunted easily, even if the law protected them.

The popular trend of digging ponds for birds first occurred around Kaeng Krachan National Park (Now it is the country’s third Natural World Heritage Site). Words and advice for creating such ponds spread among resort owners and gained popularity. This is because if wild birds come to use their areas, resorts will immediately become attractions for tourists, especially bird watchers. The owners of the ponds will earn income from entrance fees and can collect the money, rather than going into the forest and hunting wildlife as they did in the past.

The area of ​​Ban Phu Sai in Huai Mae Phiang Subdistrict, Kaeng Krachan District in Phetchaburi Province, which is adjacent to Kaeng Krachan National Park, used to have quite a lot of hunting problems. A bird and wildlife conservation club was then formed. More than 10 artificial ponds and wildlife-watching bunkers were developed in the area and these facilities have become nature and biodiversity learning centres for visitors.

At some point, more than 20 species of birds and wildlife can be seen throughout the day, including lesser-known birds such as grey peacock-pheasant, green-legged partridge, wagtail partridge, white-crested laughing thrush, or even mammals such as Tragulus.

When resort owners value biodiversity, they will begin to improve the areas around their accommodation to be more supportive of wild species. There are fruit trees that birds feed on, plants, or flowers that help attract insects and butterflies. In some places, the fruit is placed as bait to make it easier for tourists to spot the birds. The change is a promising trend as it makes the areas a lot more conducive to biodiversity conservation.

Many people may think that few areas have the potential to develop such tourism. But in fact, what we lack is more knowledge on local biodiversity. Almost every place in Thailand has a potential natural or protected area that is not too remote.

We can also easily improve the environment around the accommodation to facilitate the existence of nature, whether in the city or on the edge of the forest. It can start easily by planting a variety of perennials and local plants, fruit trees, flowering plants, and water sources for other living things to rely on.

Then we can improve the knowledge and make visitors see the value of nature around them, all of which are creating “stories” and increasing added value.

A wild deer took a good rest around the visitors centre in Khao Yai during the first round of Covid-19 outbreaks last year.

With the disruption of tourism activities during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have witnessed a reinvigoration of wildlife. Sea turtles have returned to lay their eggs on beaches, something not seen in decades, like a green turtle on Koh Samui Starfish at Mai Khao Beach and Kata Beach, Phuket Island, and dugongs which were reported to be foraging in the coastal area of ​​Ban Phe, Rayong Province.

All these phenomena help prove that many areas in Thailand still have potential as important nature reserves. Even a fully developed tourist destination like Koh Samui, Phuket Island, just needs to have rules and regulations to facilitate coexistence, such as rules on refraining from lighting on the beach at night, or preservation of beach forest areas, a buffer zone between accommodation, resorts and the coast.

There are many ways to help transform the tourism industry in our country, from enhancing entrepreneurs’ knowledge and understanding about biodiversity, developing low-impact, high-value activities such as kayaking, cycling in nature, and long-distance trekking, which allow the community to participate in the development of various activities. In addition, traditional wisdom can be applied to increase the value of activities and local appetites.

Innovations can also be introduced to reduce carbon emissions and the effects of global warming, such as promoting electric cars or boats, natural packaging that will not create residual waste, and chemical-free cleaners to reduce the problem of wastewater being washed into water sources.

Tourism in the next generation will not repeat the mistake of wooing quantity regardless of the consequences. As the UN World Tourism Organization Secretary-General said:  “Sustainability must no longer be a small part of tourism. But it must become the heart of every sector in the tourism supply chain.”

Tourism is an industry that is of great importance to Thailand’s economy. But reviving tourism after the coronavirus crisis needs to be based on sustainability for better economic and environmental revitalization. In order to prepare the country to cope with various crises in the future, biodiversity-based tourism is an important approach to help promote sustainability to become a tangible and measurable goal. This will truly create a new image for tourism in Thailand.

The calm and peaceful Thung Salang Luang National Park in the morning mist, Petchabun province.

The Thai translation is available at การท่องเที่ยวบนพื้นฐานความหลากหลายทางชีวภาพ และการฟื้นฟูเศรษฐกิจและปกป้องสิ่งแวดล้อมหลังโควิด 19