The pandemic travel restrictions were seen by many in the industry as an opportunity to rethink tourism and implement more sustainable management. But as tourists begin to return, pressure is mounting.
When the world stood still in March 2020 and tourists disappeared from the ancient stone walkways of Angkor Wat, Cambodian tour operator Sareth Duch’s nightmare began.
“This is something everybody still has in mind, even now we’re still trying to heal,” Duch said.
As the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic halted international tourism, Duch looked for a way to keep his decade-old tourism and hospitality business afloat.
“We decided to convert our [tourist] restaurant to local, so we sold Khmer food and we kept our workforce in service,” he said.
For nearly a year, earnings from the restaurant and savings kept staff employed.
When tourists still hadn’t returned by mid-2021, Duch said he began letting staff go with the promise they would be called back when international tourism resumed.
But despite the borders reopening to vaccinated travellers last November, the tourism industry in Cambodia – like much of South-East Asia – continues to suffer.
Data released by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) in early August showed international tourism in the Asia Pacific region was experiencing the slowest recovery of anywhere in the world.
While international arrivals in Europe are down 30 percent on 2019 levels, in the Asia Pacific region they are down 90 percent.
The region’s slow recovery is mostly due to its dependence on Chinese tourists, who are still unable to travel because of China’s current Covid-19 travel policies.
Return to business as usual?
Before the pandemic, tourism across the Asia Pacific was thriving, with international arrivals in the region growing on average 7 percent per year for a decade, according to the UNWTO.
While the boom was good for business, endless arrivals were spoiling the integrity of must-see destinations and beginning to threaten the very survival of places like Angkor Wat, Indonesia’s Borobudur and Thailand’s famed Maya Bay.
Mass tourism and hotel development around Angkor Wat temple draws on groundwater which is risking the stability of the ancient structures sitting above the shrinking water table.
The blindingly white sands and turquoise water of Maya Bay – the cove made famous by the film The Beach – was closed by authorities in 2018 after a tourist onslaught destroyed much of the coral and sea life and contributed to erosion of the beach.
When it comes to tourism in Asia, Fergus Maclaren, president of the International Cultural Tourism Committee, said a number of questions needed to be asked: Who was benefiting? What was the impact on the local environment? And what was the quality of experience?
“The social impacts, the environmental impacts, the cultural impacts really begin to place a toll on the wellbeing and the health of the environment and local communities,” Maclaren said.
This is an excerpt from an article by ABC originally published by Radio New Zealand.