Mario Hardy, CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), speaks with Anula Galewska about the organisation’s commitment to sustainable tourism and what Asia needs to take sustainability to the next level.
Dr. Mario Hardy is Chief Executive Officer, Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA). Dr. Hardy has close to 30 years of combined leadership, corporate development and change management experience. Prior to PATA, Mario worked 14 years for UBM/OAG a business with a focus on data analytics and events for the aviation sector and occupied several leadership roles in London, Beijing and Singapore.
ANULA: PATA actively advocates for sustainable tourism. What is your goal?
MARIO: Our aim is to educate, train and create awareness. We want to educate people from the tourism industry on practical ways of being more environmentally friendly, how they can engage with local communities, and also to inspire people to think about sustainability differently than they were thinking before.
People usually link sustainability with the environment, which of course is very important but shouldn’t be limited to it. Sustainability includes social, economic and cultural aspects, and my feeling is that we don’t address these issues enough. For example, we should educate people as to how tourism can improve the wealth of local communities.
People usually link sustainability with the environment, which of course is very important but shouldn’t be limited to it. Sustainability includes social, economic and cultural aspects, and my feeling is that we don’t address these issues enough.
ANULA: And how is PATA doing this?
MARIO: We talk a lot about sustainability on sustain.pata.org, but as 2017 is the Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, we are thinking what else we can do with this platform; what kind of content to add and how to share it with people. That’s the idea for this year, although we haven’t decided yet how exactly we’re going to do it.
And through our foundation, PATA runs a project in Sapa in Vietnam. We’ve been working with local minorities there for over 5 years helping develop tourism in the area. In the beginning locals didn’t know what tourism was about; they didn’t understand why tourists would come and pay to meet them. It was a long process to show them how tourism can work, and what the benefits are. Many were living below the poverty line, children were not going to school. After a couple of years of working and educating them, however, we started to see results: improved infrastructure, children started attending schools, some went to the universities, and overall living standards have improved.
In general, sustainability is a wide topic that has always been important for PATA. Many of our activities and advocacy themes are related to sustainability. These include human capital development, crisis management, visa facilitation, dispersion of tourists and youth engagement.
ANULA: Can you tell more about what you are doing regarding youth engagement?
MARIO: We have internally declared 2017 as the year for youth engagement. We also created a Young Tourism Professionals membership category for PATA, and we are going to focus a lot of attention on people aged 16 to 35. For the first time in 65 years of existence we’ll have individual members. Benefits for individuals will of course be limited, in comparison to corporate membership, but we want to engage with young people and help them engage within the industry in different ways. Therefore, many of our activities this year will be addressed to young people.
ANULA: You’ve also been looking a great deal at spreading the benefits of tourism around – at tourism dispersion.
MARIO: The opportunities coming from dispersion of tourists is a topic we’ve been promoting for two years now. There are so many areas which have too many tourists, and some that don’t get any. There are destinations like Angkor Wat, or Bangkok or even European cities like Venice or Barcelona, with too high a concentration of tourists. And on the other hand, there are plenty of places where people could go. I call it the bucket list phenomena. The question is how we can spread people, and make them go and discover places outside of a typical bucket list. By doing it, we can respond to the pressures on places with too high concentration of tourists, and we can decrease poverty by bringing people to those areas where tourism is not developed, which also results in improving the infrastructure and developing human capital.
ANULA: How do you measure your goals?
MARIO: It’s a good question. Some goals are more measurable than others. Certainly I can’t measure the dispersion of tourists in terms of financials or actual numbers. However, since we started talking about this issue two years ago, I see this topic being raised by many people, even though before it hasn’t been mentioned at all. Now I go to meetings and hear ministers from Thailand, Indonesia or Cambodia telling me about ideas to promote less developed tourist regions and the benefits of tourist dispersal. For me this is my achievement, my success. Apart from us writing about this issue and our Chairman speaking about it, we run an annual competition called the CEO Challenge together with TripAdvisor. With this initiative we help less known destinations be promoted, and this is our direct impact.
ANULA: Looking at your sustainability in particular, I see PATA is also certified with Earthcheck.
MARIO: Yes. We are a trade organisation that promotes sustainability. If we asked people to be green but we didn’t do it ourselves, it wouldn’t be very honest.
We are a trade organisation that promotes sustainability. If we asked people to be green but we didn’t do it ourselves, it wouldn’t be very honest.
We are Silver certified with Earthcheck, and now we’re aiming for Gold but it’s quite a challenge because we don’t own the building, which means we don’t have influence on everything, like air-conditioning, water consumption, electricity. So we don’t have control over numbers.
But still, we’ve made a lot of changes already. It’s nothing in comparison what we need but internally we do small things. For example we brief our staff about sustainability and what we all can do to be more green in this particular office. The first discussions were very difficult because people are used to their own daily habits. Turning the light off in the evening, recycling paper, switching off the computer when you go for lunch – all these are obvious things but we tend to forget about them. However, when you repeat something several times, it becomes a new habit. So now when you walk around the office you will notice that people do switch off the light or their computers, and they would tell others if they don’t,or that we recycle, and that the office is run practically paperless.
ANULA: Do you see certifications as important to this process?
MARIO: If it wasn’t certification, we might have not implemented all these changes. It was a way to force ourselves and our staff to implement changes. We’re now striving to become Gold certified, which forces us to do more. So on one hand certifications raise awareness, and on the other it pushes people to constantly improve.
I see many certification schemes competing. Asia is different from Europe, so as any other business, certifying bodies have to adopt their market strategies. For example, Asia is very cost conscious, so the pricing has to be adjusted. Companies also have to think how to brand themselves here, how certifications are being implemented, and in the first place – they need to educate the market.
ANULA: What is that Asia needs in terms of taking sustainable tourism to the next level?
MARIO: We are still at the stage in Asia where education is the key. There are areas where the word sustainability doesn’t translate to other languages. So understanding what it really means is still a problem. I think we need to find different words or different ways of describing sustainability to make it relevant to people, and give them real life examples of what being sustainable can do for them. What it means not only today but also tomorrow or decades from now. And how we can make it tangible to people, what they can do on a daily basis that will make an impact long-term. I think that’s the first challenge we need to overcome.
We are still at the stage in Asia where education is the key. We need to find different words or different ways of describing sustainability to make it relevant to people, and give them real life examples of what being sustainable can do for them.
Tourism still is counted in numbers, especially with corporations, which are focused purely on revenues. But this is starting to change, as many are realising they need long term goals. But it takes a long time.
Nevertheless, we have to remember that there are places in Asia where sustainability is really well developed, and so we need to share these good examples.
Maybe Asia doesn’t have an equivalent to companies like TUI but I think both Accor and Marriott do a lot of good for sustainability. Apart from the big chains, there are many smaller brands, which are great examples of sustainable tourism, several eco boutique hotels and tour companies.
ANULA: PATA works both with public and private sector. Who do you think should lead the change?
MARIO: It’s both. I’d never say it’s one or the other. It more depends on the skills set of each individual. You can find people from the governments, who understand sustainability really well, like the Mrs. Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul for example, Thailand’s Minister of Tourism. Although she doesn’t have sustainability in her title, she is a good ambassador for sustainable tourism, understands the topics well and engages with communities and people. She is a good example of a person from the public sector. And then in the private sector we have people like Willem Niemeijer from Khiri Travel, or EXO Travel, who are good leading examples. The key is to get the public and private sector work together, share experiences, and lead by example.
ANULA: What about the big online travel and travel technology brands. Do they have any role in promoting sustainable tourism?
MARIO: That’s a bit difficult to answer. I think they don’t have any role at the moment. The challenge is that OTAs don’t own anything. Booking.com doesn’t own hotels, Skyscanner doesn’t own any airlines. They are just an aggregator, so it’s a bit difficult for them to be able to identify, who is green and who is not because there are no standards. There is no clear criteria to say, who is a 4-star green property.
I had this discussion with TripAdvisor and I asked why don’t you create a label for green. They said we’d love to, if someone can come up with a standard. As a corporation or an OTA it’s not their responsibility to develop standards. If someone would come up with one, that people would actually use, they would happily add it to their search engine.
ANULA: Do you believe that adding such information would influence customer’s choice?
MARIO: If I were a customer that is looking at the website, and I’d see two properties at the same price, similar location and one would offer local fresh food grown in their garden, and the other didn’t, I would chose that one. But again, I’m more aware. I’m not sure if regular consumers would do the same.
ANULA: Finally, what does PATA wish for in 2017?
MARIO: PATA’s responsibility this year is to take the time to teach people, educate and train them. We want to be a source of inspiration. If we can inspire people to be more alert, aware and conscious and show them the benefits of being more sustainable – this will be our success. The challenge is how do we measure it.
Even though 2017 is the year of sustainable tourism for development, it’s not the end of it. It’s just the beginning.
Even though 2017 is the year of sustainable tourism for development, it’s not the end of it. It’s just the beginning.