"Little steps can be made to lead us together into a happier and more sustainable world"
Roi Ariel is currently a Sustainability & Social Responsibility Associate at PATA based in Bangkok. He has recently been the Partnership Manager for the Responsible Tourism Awards at Wild Asia and an Environmental Affairs intern at UN-ESCAP. He has worked as an Independent Ecotourism Advisor in China, Taiwan, Madagascar and in his native Israel, where he was an Advisor to Friends of the Earth Middle East and a Radio host and producer at the Israel Broadcasting Authority. He holds a Master's degree in Applied Economics and Social Development from National Chengchi University of Taipei (Taiwan) and a Bachelor's Degree in International Relations and Comparative Religion from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
ECOCLUB.com: Please explain to us the general philosophy and specific aims of the Wild Asia Awards. How are winners chosen and what do they gain?
Roi Ariel: The tourism industry in Asia is growing very quickly. We believe that sustainable destinations can be made a reality by promoting, sharing and inspiring change from within the travel industry. Wild Asia’s Responsible Tourism Awards is one of the first tourism award in Asia specifically focused on sustainable tourism best practices. Since 2006, the annual awards identify accommodation and tourism operators and projects who are making a positive difference in the destination where they operate. By rewarding the bright sparks, more operators from the region will be encouraged to step forward and to share and inspire change from within the travel industry, beginning with operators closest to us. We have aligned our Responsible Tourism Checklist according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) Sustainable Tourism Criteria. We keep supporting the winners to showcase their practices. For example, Yurie Nagashima of Kinyei, winner of Most Inspiring Responsible Tourism Initiative category for 2015, gave a talk about “Building Partnerships with Local Communities: The Key To Community-Based Tourism” at IBT Asia 2015 Responsible Tourism Clinics arranged by Wild Asia.
Our Judging Advisory Panel is made up of senior level sustainable tourism experts. All members have at least 10 years of experience in tourism in general and in responsible tourism in Asia in particular. They review the answers and evidences provided in the application forms, and the required documentation. Each Judge selects their top 2-3 operators for each category. The two operators with the most votes are selected as Finalists. Likewise, the operator in each category at the second round of judging with the most votes is selected as a Winner. Allowing the Judges to vote as an independent Panel gives us assurance and fair judging. In case of a conflict of interests, the judge does not vote in the specific category. And a few tips to those who plan to apply for such kind of awards: make sure to apply for the right category. This can be critical for being selected as a finalist or a winner. Also, giving more information helps the judges understand better what the business does. Using concrete numbers and examples help to show the positive impact.
ECOCLUB.com: In what key ways is Wild Asia, a social enterprise, different from other organizations in terms of its people, scope, goals, fundraising, governance and latest successes in Tourism and beyond?
Roi Ariel: Wild Asia is one of the few Malaysian-based social enterprise that operates in so many countries in Asia. It was established in 2003 to help adapt the way consumers, businesses and traders operate, ensuring that they can leave a positive footprint on the developing world. How do we do that? We start from the bottom: from raw materials. Here we find ways to guide organisations in creating a better environment for their employees, local communities and surrounding biodiversity. As a “social enterprise”, we run as a “not-for-profit” organisation, with a mission to tackle social and environmental issues. We earn our income largely through consultancies and the training services we provide. All our founding shareholders have signed an agreement recognising the social mission and enterprise of Wild Asia. In practice 100% of all profits are distributed back into the business: 65% into our company for growth and 35% to our employees as profit shares.
Wild Asia Responsible Tourism Initiative provides professional support to tourism businesses in Assessment & Reporting; Communications ; Training & Capacity Building; Support to meet International Sustainable Tourism Standards, eg. Travelife System, GSTC benchmarking. In seven years, we have trained over 200 professionals and NGOs and reached out to over 2000 industry players via talks, conferences and events. Our previous customers include Tourism Malaysia, Hotel Penaga and Batu Batu Resort to name a few, as well a number of collaborations with Taylor’s University and WWF Community Based Ecotourism, among others. Besides tourism, Wild Asia also works in other environmental fields. The Palm Oil Initiative has been Wild Asia's longest standing areas of interest, providing technical solutions to promote sustainability across the entire oil palm supply chain. We support both large and small organisations, including small farmers, to meet the requirements of buyers or International Standards, mostly the Sustainable Palm Oil, RSPO. We have worked with palm oil producers in Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Thailand, Cameroon and Ghana. Since 2008, Wild Asia has completed more than 90 assignments and trained over 2,000 professionals and NGOs. Major projects include “Supply Chain” Risk Assessments for Cargill, HSBC, Mitsui Corporation and Nestle.
Another, more recent, initiative is the Sustainable Building initiative or “Building for Tomorrow”. It is a collaboration between designers, innovators and our understanding of nature and biodiversity, to provide a practical solution in building sustainable communities. Our approach targets individuals, project developers and those exploring new ways to provide affordable and low-impact housing for their people. We provide: Design and build projects using Earthship Biotecture; Design consultancies in passive and ecological designs; and Retrofitting of conventional buildings.
ECOCLUB.com: Among its many projects, Wild Asia is assisting accommodation providers achieve green certification. Is it accurate to state that green certification in Tourism has more or less stalled in Asia and worldwide? If this is the case, should we ask for tax incentives or move towards obligatory measures such as more stringent green laws?
Roi Ariel: Certifications give credibility to a business, showing its commitment or quality of operation. However, we should remember that certifications are voluntarily. A tourist in Laos can choose to stay wherever he wishes, whether or not that place has any kind of certification. But consumers that put more thought in their purchasing decisions are keen to choose an accommodation that follows responsible criteria. Generally, certifications are there for the tourists to make a decision. An example of a certification that is being taken seriously is the Travelife certification, co-founded by the European Union and is supported by major European tour operators like Thomas Cook and TUI. Still, certification by itself is not enough. Having tax incentives is definitely a way to support more businesses to seek greener practices. This is true to all industries, not only in tourism. Obligatory measures cannot be applied everywhere, but creating regulations for operators or sites such as national parks is possible and can have much impact.
ECOCLUB.com: You are also working for the Bangkok-based United Nations Economic & Social Committee for Asia and the Pacific (UN-ESCAP) developing a web-based regional knowledge platform on sustainable development and the green economy. Are you optimistic that there is still a place for specialist, independent knowledge platforms in a Web dominated by a handful of social networks and search engines?
Roi Ariel: If you spend enough time searching online, you will definitely find the information you are looking for. Old fashion portals, that only link to other sources, are not relevant anymore. Though processing, analysing and interpreting big amount of data or information is a whole different story. By putting information into a specific platform, it is possible to reach understandings and realizations of complex issues. Those knowledge platforms are good if they process big data information or give analysis and interpretation of qualitative data. Now I am looking into the institutional framework of Sustainable Development, Green Growth and Inclusive Growth in South East Asian countries. Putting the information through specific lenses, helps to see regional trends, compare the different frameworks, and see what works and what doesn’t. Another example is the new Asia Pacific Energy Portal launched by UN-ESCAP in 2015 that can be used to find energy-related data and policy information for ESCAP member and associate member States. Visualization and infographics can help understand complex issues very quickly. Maybe in the future we could Google up aggregated data of policies, plans and strategies of different countries, but right such knowledge platforms are still useful and efficient.
ECOCLUB.com: Based on your work in China what is your evaluation of current ecotourism-related policies there, are they supportive of small and grassroots ecotourism oufits?
Roi Ariel: China is different, very different, from any other country. In 2015 China had 109 million outbound tourists with retail spend of US$229 billion. But those are small figures compared to domestic tourism. With the biggest number of domestic tourists, a destination that becomes popular sees an influx and development not possible in any other country. The small town of Lijiang in North Western Yunnan which was unheard of 25 years ago, receives today more Chinese domestic tourists than all the international tourist arrivals to Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, combined! The upcoming rise of ecotourism in China will be in the domestic market, probably with a Chinese take on it. Chinese consumers have more awareness than what many assume and take into consideration environmental issues when making consumption decision, currently especially in food related products. It is just a matter of time until ecotourism will become more popular in the domestic market. Together with the remarkable work of the Chinese government in drafting and implementing new environmental regulations, it makes me optimistic about the future of ecotourism in China. However, the current policies supporting ecotourism are not strong enough, but this could change in a year or two.
ECOCLUB.com: You have researched sustainable tourism practices by indigenous communities in Taiwan. Is community tourism successful in meeting the real needs of indigenous in Taiwan?
Roi Ariel: Taiwan indigenous people are very diverse, speaking about 22 different languages of the Austronesian language family, and a fascinating case of indigenous tourism. When tourism in the indigenous communities was first developed, it was a kind of ethnic tourism of the Han Chinese majority visiting “tribes” that dance and sing, and then have lunch. Sometimes, these activities have nothing to do with traditional practices of that certain community, which is similar to what happens in Yunnan and Guangxi Provinces in mainland China. However, compared to other indigenous peoples in Asia, the indigenous people in Taiwan nowadays have good access to infrastructure, services and education. This allowed a few communities to develop unique and specific kind of ecotourism and community based tourism where the community is in control of the situation, not the other way round. What I find fascinating is that the successful community tourism come from within the community, and not from international organizations and outsiders that bring the ideas and train the people in the community. A famous example for this is the story of Atayal community of Smangus that was looking to have a modern community system that is based on traditional law, the Gaga. The Taiwanese tourists demand nature and authenticity in domestic destination, and they are a key factor in the success story of community tourism in Taiwan.
ECOCLUB.com: Do you see a role for Ecotourism, and ecotourism in helping reduce tensions in the region, between Taiwan and China, and other countries? And in the Spratly islands dispute for example?
Roi Ariel: I do not think that tourism has a strong effect of reducing tension and territorial disputes, but it surely has an effect on socio-economic relationship and dependency, between Taiwan and China. Mainland China (including Hong Kong and Macau) represent 54% of the 9.9 million international tourist arrivals in Taiwan in 2015. The US, Europe, Australia and New Zealand count for only 8.2% of international tourists to Taiwan. The Taiwanese tourism industry in general is changing towards the needs of mainland Chinese tourists. It also means that the Taiwanese tourism industry becomes more dependent on close ties with Mainland China, which some Taiwanese regard as a negative thing. Taiwan is about to go into elections in January 2016 that will affect the relationship of China and Taiwan.
ECOCLUB.com: If you were to evaluate the track record of the Tourism sector as a whole towards poverty-reduction, environmental conservation & Human Rights in Asia would you say it is positive, neutral or perhaps negative?
Roi Ariel: The tourism sector is a very complex system, and it is difficult to paint its effects simply in either black and white (or brown and green). However, we can see certain trends. Take the environmental conservation for example. On the one hand, tourism has negative effects – land is being cleared for hotels and recreation parks; coral reefs in the Andaman sea have been bleached by the divers, snorkelers and boats activities; national parks in Sri Lanka are being overrun by 4x4s that try to bring the passengers as close as they can to the elephants for a better tip; and natural habitats are being interrupted. In a recent vacation I had in Krabi, Thailand, I visited a lagoon in Hong Island, a few other tourists started making much noise, clapping their hands and shouting. “What were they doing?” I was wondering while jumping off the boat to swim towards them. Then I realized, they were trying to awake the hundreds of sleeping bats on the trees, so they can enjoy seeing them fly around during day time!
On the other hand, tourism can support environmental conservation. This is exactly what I wrote my bachelor thesis about, showing how ecotourism in Lao PDR has helped the conservation efforts of the Asian Elephant. This is where sustainable and eco tourism comes in. Just a few months ago, the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) published together with UNEP a very good manual: Tourism Supporting Biodiversity: A Manual on applying the CBD Guidelines on Biodiversity and Tourism Development. What we can do, as tourism professionals and tourists alike, is to support the kind of tourism that have positive effect on the environment. Not just support, demand it!
ECOCLUB.com: During your Bachelor in International Relations & Comparative Religion you actively promoted inter-religious dialogue. In the light of the current conflict and crimes against humanity and world heritage in the Middle East do you still believe that Tourism has a significant potential for peace-building and conflict-mitigation in the region? Do we perhaps need to encourage special, more focused forms of tourism or should we just wait for genuine grassroots, bridge-building initiatives to emerge by themselves?
Roi Ariel: I have no doubt that tourism has the potential of peace-building. However, it cannot be achieved in every situation. Certain conditions must be met. In Syria, Iraq, and other war-torn countries, tourism is too far away from having any real influence. When we think about Palmyra in Syria, we may think of it as a good tourist attraction for its history. This the opposite of what ISIS think of it – a history that need to be erased, and tourism has no place there. However, in places where the conflict is not so deadly and destructive, bridge-building initiatives should be encouraged and supported. Let me give a few examples from my native country, Israel. I was involved with the “Green Economy Initiative”, a long-term project of Friends of the Earth Middle East / EcoPeace, environmental peace-making by building cross-border cooperation of sustainable tourism businesses in support of fair economic benefits from the sustainable use of shared environmental resources. It developed partnerships and cross-border itineraries that address interests in education, pilgrimage, cultural, political, peace and environment oriented tours and short or long-term programs. These in turn, support green enterprises in local communities including adventure tourism, food production and services, agriculture, natural and cultural heritage, and women empowerment initiatives. It promotes regional vision of environmental interdependency and peaceful cross-border environmental cooperation.
Another example is the powerful grass-root initiative Tiyul-Rihla, which means “Trip” in Hebrew and Arabic. It is a bi-national dialogue and learning program that brings mixed groups of Palestinians and Israelis on 2-3 day educational tours to expose one another to the historical narrative and cultural identity of the other. Trips alternate between areas under Israeli and Palestinian control, always with due authorization. This is a unique opportunity for Israelis and Palestinians to learn about each other from each other, and not from the media. Through visits to Jewish, Muslims and Arabs sites, personal connection is created and conversations arise. Some of the conversations are very emotional and not easy, but they are very important. For most participants they visit these places for the first time. Supporting that kind of initiatives is effective and useful. There are also tourism companies that specialize on tours related to conflicts and their stories, like Mejdi Tours.
ECOCLUB.com: What inspires and motivates you most as an Ecotourism Development Consultant and what are your future goals?
Roi Ariel: Years ago, while travelling in Laos, I encountered an inspiring idea. I found myself in the canopy of a rainforest, for three days, surrounded by the breath of active conservation. I, and a small number of other tourists, ate local food, learned secrets of Lao culture and history, and immersed ourselves in protected, primary forest. It was only later that I understood a broader picture of my trip. I was part of the active conservation of primary forest and the economic development of the area's local population. Eager to learn more, I began my research, and later career, in eco-tourism.
Since then, both positive and negative issues inspire me. The positive impact and success stories of community based eco-tourism that I have read about, saw with my own eyes, and was involved in, inspire me. Especially the indigenous communities in Taiwan, that I found to be quite innovative. For example, the Atayal people of Cinsbu in Taiwan, built a gathering site called Tkyu, dedicated to passing on traditional knowledge and skills through classes and ceremonies with community members and outsiders, and the “forest classroom” on the grounds of its local elementary school. These facilities are first aimed for the community, and then for tourists to learn, in the same way the elders and teachers would teach their own people. However, the negative impact of tourism on the environment (e.g. excessive water usage, coral bleaching, CO2 emissions, to name a few) and negative influence on society, inspires me to contribute as much as I can to influence and direct the tourism industry into a responsible path, with more sustainable consumption habits.
My passion for green economy and sustainable tourism comes from understanding that little steps can be made to lead us together into a happier and more sustainable world. As I am knowledgeable about Asian culture, geography, history and religions, I believe I will continue to work in Asia Pacific, where 60% of the world population reside, and also where my heart is.
ECOCLUB.com: Thank you very much for sharing your informed views and passion for ecotourism. It is true that little steps can take us a long way and that genuine ecotourism is pivotal in a process of peaceful, progressive, change.