How to grow a sustainable tourism business in Asia: Interview with Willem Niemeijer

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For this interview, Anula Galewska spoke with Willem Niemeijer, CEO of YAANA Ventures and Founder of Khiri Travel, about the current state of sustainable tourism in Asia and engaging suppliers in a company’s sustainability efforts.

This article is part of the interview series with Speakers of the GSTC Conferences in Suwon, Korea and Athens, Greece held in October and November 2016.

Anula: You own two companies, Khiri Travel and YAANA Ventures (previously known as Khiri Group). What do they do, and why the rebrand?

Willem: We’re in experiential travel. This is what pulls all the parts together. I founded Khiri Travel in 1993 as an incoming B2B tour operator. So we work with tour operators worldwide and we handle all their operations in the region we’re in. We started in Thailand and Indochina and then we added Myanmar, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and The Maldives to the portfolio. The company grew quite a bit, in particular over the last 6-7 years, and so did our aspirations to do more than just B2B incoming. So we built an eco lodge in Thailand, called Anurak Community Lodge, we have Banteay Chhmar Tents, a camp in a remote part of Cambodia, and we took a stake in Grasshopper Adventures, a bike company with operations in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam and tours in many more Asian destinations.

Our original name for the holding of these companies was the Khiri Group. However, all are independent brands with different shareholding arrangements and each has its own mission. So we said Khiri Group doesn’t really work well and rebranded as YAANA Ventures. YAANA Ventures encompasses five different brands at this time, including community-focused development start-up GROUND, and we’re adding more each year.

Anula: How has the market changed since 1993?

Willem: The destinations we work with have developed tremendously over the last few decades. In particular, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos have really changed a lot in terms of infrastructure, hotels, etc. These destinations have matured, and so tourism has boomed as well. Tourism in the other destinations, however, has stagnated a little bit maybe. Indonesia for example, with the exception of Bali which has continued to grow.

The tourism boom, also fueled by regional travel, makes it urgent and necessary to work on tourist dispersion. It’s not sustainable for Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar and Cambodia to keep developing just a few hubs. It’s really important that these countries build tourism infrastructure that encompasses the whole country, and not just a few areas.

It’s really important that countries build tourism infrastructure that encompasses the whole country, and not just a few areas.

Anula: What’s the difference between the Asian and European approach towards sustainability?

Willem: Level of education and awareness. When you look at Western countries, in particular in the last 5-10 years, a lot has changed. There are cities like San Francisco banning plastic bottles and styrofoam, and places like Copenhagen even further along the curve. Sometimes it seems they are so far ahead, that Asia may never catch up.

That being said, we see that Asia can move very, very fast when they’re committed. So there’s still hope – but it’s a big task: both the public and private sectors have to work together. It can be done, but there also needs to be the political will to make it happen.

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Anula: Do you find it difficult to engage your suppliers in your sustainability efforts?

Willem: It depends on the destination. In Thailand and Vietnam the concept of sustainability is already very well known among our suppliers. They understand, and many of them proactively support, our sustainability program. So it is not so difficult.

In other places, in particular in the less developed countries that are just starting now, it’s sometimes more of a struggle. In Myanmar, Cambodia, and some parts of Indonesia, it is a newer concept and more needs to be done in terms of training.

Anula: How do you help educate them?

Willem: Khiri Travel is first and foremost a business. So we make our suppliers aware of what we’re doing and what we require. It is a soft approach, which works best, especially when mixed with the incentive of a little bit of reward.

For example, with hotels, we have a glass bottle program where we introduce hotels to an idea – why don’t you change your plastic bottles to glass bottles? The majority of hotels in Asia put two plastic bottles in the room. But in most cases, these could be two glass bottles. It also depends on their water suppliers, but in most areas we know that water suppliers can also deliver glass bottles.

We make hotels aware of this practice and, if they implement it, we give them an extra mention on our website and in our social media. We also spread the word amongst others and we give hotels a friendly push in the back, so we say – if you do this, we will promote you.

Anula: Do you see certification programs as a way to promote and improve sustainability standards among your suppliers?

Willem: Well, we are Travelife certified, and with suppliers it depends on which country we are in. In Thailand, we have the Green Leaf program, which is fairly easy to enroll in, so it’s a good one for suppliers to start with. And therefore it’s especially good for small and independent hotels, as they have so many things to be worried about just to be profitable. And they may not have the budget to go for an Earthcheck type of certification. But once you certify on a lower level, you can then take the next step.

I know that we as a company can do more. We could probably be recommending a number of certification bodies to the hotels we work with, and suggest which ones are the best fit for them.

Anula: How can these companies use such certification for marketing purposes?

Willem: You have to be very careful not to be putting your sustainability certification first when you promote. You really have to think about your marketing message when it comes to sustainability. And your marketing message needs to be in line with the vision of your company.

So if you’re serious about sustainability, the vision or mission of your company needs to contain the sustainability as part of your business goals. If that is your business goal, then you create your marketing around reaching your business goal. You market about the why of your company, not about what you do. So that needs to be put forward in your marketing message. If you do that, then you will attract the types of clients you want to attract.

If you’re serious about sustainability, the vision or mission of your company needs to contain the sustainability as part of your business goals. You market about the why of your company, not about what you do.

It’s good to have a certification because no matter whether you work B2B or B2C, if you take your company more seriously, your clients will take you more seriously. But again, it has to be aligned with your overall mission and vision.willem-niemeijer-gstc-conference-korea-panel

Anula: What are the most inspiring companies you work with?

Willem: It depends on which level we are talking about. On a high level, I’m a big fan of what Six Senses is doing. We work with them and they do great stuff when it comes to the environment, and they price it very well. This shows there’s an interest if you can find an interesting way to do it. Another high end property which we think is amazing is Song Saa, a private island in Cambodia. They spent more than 3 years before building it with marine biologists cleaning up the coral around the island, so it is really an amazing project with a very active foundation.

I think that Banteay Chhmar Tents is a really good project as well although it’s more of a social enterprise than a proper business. And I think Grasshopper Adventures, with their cycling tours shows that no matter whether you are an experienced cyclist or not, you can do these tours and it’s a great way to explore the country and meet the locals.

Anula: How to make sustainable tourism go mainstream?

Willem: I think we’re on the right path as an industry – it is good to see UNWTO, and big players like TUI that can move really fast at a conference like this [GSTC in Korea]. And with public-private sector cooperation between large companies like Royal Caribbean and WWF, there’s a broad opportunity to put more awareness in people’s minds.

Even big hotels can do things that are easy and make changes that can influence both cultural sensitivity among their guests and also minimize environmental impact. Simple things like changing to glass bottles and replacing plastic bathroom containers with locally-made ceramic ones. They can do these things very easily, which would also save some money, and make an immediate impact on the environment.


GSTC Global Sustainable Tourism Conference took place in Suwon, Korea in October 2016. To view presentations from the past conference and learn about upcoming GSTC events, visit GSTC website.

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