Even as tourism bounces back across the Mekong Sub-Region, stakeholders worry about meeting the challenges that come with the return of tourists. How can overtourism be avoided? How can we use technology to understand what tourists want and need? How can the dividends of tourism be spread more fairly to secondary destinations?
Destination Mekong, a private-sector driven tourism organization that promotes organization that promotes the Greater Mekong Subregion as a single sustainable tourism destination, has been leading the charge in addressing these questions – providing innovative answers that meet the needs of a wide variety of stakeholders. We caught up with Destination Mekong CEO Catherine Germier-Hamel to discuss how her organization is helping rethink Mekong tourism in a more sustainable, resilient direction.
How has the pandemic complicated Destination Mekong’s mission?
The pandemic affected everybody in the world. No tourism means no international tourism; and travel restrictions means limiting the scope of our activities. The pandemic affected Destination Mekong a lot, because we are at the center of tourism and hospitality, marketing, branding and development in the region.
At the same time, this was a very interesting period, when people are forced to reinvent themselves and to rethink the purpose of their activities – to try to have a different strategy and approach, and tap into different opportunities. I would say this is challenging, and I love challenges!
Could you speak about any particular Destination Mekong stakeholders who you feel were particularly affected by the by the tourism decline during the pandemic?
Everybody was affected. We don’t talk so much about airlines, but they are so important, even if sometimes I wish they could be a little more sustainable and think about cleaner technologies to reduce their carbon emissions.
People like tuktuk drivers, massage operators and tour guides are really in close contact with the travelers. For them, the impact was really negative because they lost their main activities.
It was also impactful for the students who wanted to have a career in tourism and hospitality. Many of them decided to give up and to do something else. I’m happy that some of them received support, but I think it’s not enough.
What has the pandemic taught Mekong countries about adjusting to the new realities on the ground?
It’s really time now that we restart tourism; not only to restart, it’s to reform and rebalance tourism.
Tourism needs to be more creative and innovative. I’m not talking about smart technologies or innovative projects. I’m talking about the organization of the sector, how different stakeholders collaborate, and how we can better use tourism data to make better decisions, to build strategies that are more effective and sustainable.
“Reform” means making sure that we will be more resilient, to be able to cope with future crises. If we ever have a political crisis, environmental crisis, climate crisis, we need to be prepared.
“Rebalance” is about how tourism revenues should be shared more fairly. They should not come to the same people all the time. They should be whole-country and the whole destination. We need we need to promote these emerging, secondary destinations. But they’re not just secondary, they’re complementary destinations. We also need to disperse the flows of tourists so that we are no longer having to fight against overtourism.
So “rebalance” is a matter of social justice; tourism should not benefit only investors or foreign companies. It should benefit the whole population. And this is something that is very important to us: to make things fairer, more dispersed between the country and the regions.
Could you also expand on sustainability as something that your stakeholders or the Mekong tourism industry should be striving for?
“Sustainable”: it’s not only environment, it’s also about social sustainability, the economic sustainability. We need to promote more localized approaches of sustainable tourism, not concepts that were created by the West.
For me, sustainability should be practical. it’s a matter of common sense. It has to be planned, monitored and measured. We can use technology to study the behavior of tourists, and can nudge people better. Finally, sustainability is a journey; it’s about building long term impact that maybe can be felt only in 50 years.
I wanted to circle back to Destination Mekong projects. I was curious about how specific projects like your micro-certification program and the Mekong Discovery Centers support sustainability and resilience for tourism in the Mekong area.
You know, there are already a lot of major certification schemes in the industry: Travelife, EarthCheck, they are very interesting, but they don’t apply to micro-enterprises like homestays.
You also have standards, like the Global Sustainable Tourism Council standards. For many businesses, these are simply not accessible or affordable. They require human resources and financial resources to put into practice.
Our idea is to promote a smaller kind of certification. We will not certify them ourselves; however, we will work with the certification bodies to focus on water, waste, environment, energy and water efficiency, gender equality – one by one, step by step. And it will be more like badges. Those micro-certifications will come with capacity building. This is something that is a priority for Destination Mekong, because we want to share the knowledge, but also show them how to use the knowledge. We want to provide skills, and we want to to make people confident that they can make it happen very quickly.
Certification is good because it offers credibility, legitimacy, access to some markets; it also meets the growing needs of the traveler.
And the Mekong Discovery Centers?
I’m very proud of this project, because this is the perfect time to build Mekong Discovery Centers as eco-friendly visitor centers. They are also training and capacity building centers, because they will be used by the local community; and by students to practice their skills with tourists.
Each Discovery Center will have rest areas where we will sell souvenirs and coffee; they will have clean restrooms, and restaurants. We can even have a bar with cocktails! There will be also opportunities to depict what’s going on in the area. There will be also a photo exhibition. It will be very interactive. It will be smart.
We want the Discovery Centers to be like laboratories, where we can try new practices and solutions. And of course, we want them to be a place where the locals can really, truly interact with the travelers.
What is important also, because we are into marketing, we want to collect data about the traveler: real time data where we want to measure their satisfaction, not only the profile and the country of origin and how much they spend or what they like, but also to understand better why they choose this destination, how we can make them stay longer.
How do we finance this? I want big companies with CSR policies to be partners. We also want this to be a public private-partnership project.
In terms of specifics, do we know where the Mekong Discovery Centers will be set up?
We are dealing with six [Mekong Sub-Region] countries; ideally all six should benefit from our services. But since we are still a small team and we have limited time and resources, we are going to start in Cambodia, where we will select pilot sites to implement the Mekong Discovery Center.
Little by little we hope to create not only a physical network of Mekong Discovery centers, but also an online network. The idea is really to build a network where people can share data, practices and marketing materials.
Do you have any short or medium term predictions of how tourism in Mekong countries will develop over the next couple of years – or how you’d like to see it develop?
Usually I don’t like to predict anything, we have so many different scenarios in front of us. I have a lot of hope in the Korean market, and that would definitely contribute to the restart of tourism in the region. We want to promote Korea-Mekong cooperation. That’s why Destination Mekong is a Korea-Mekong cooperation advisor.
We want to make sure that we don’t just restart business as usual. We need to highlight the value offered by sustainable, eco-friendly, community-driven experiences. So my prediction is that definitely tourists will come back, and hopefully they will come back in a very positive way. Offering more respect to local communities, being part of a true relationship between the host and the guests, not only consuming local resources, but also giving back to the local communities and the local economy.