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ECOCLUB.com Interview with Steve Noakes

"I would suggest that we have as many national governments as possible fully realise the power (and do something about it) of sustainable tourism to contribute to peace, harmony, respect and tolerance between people and for their own national economic, environmental and social/cultural objectives"

Steve NoakesSteve Noakes is Executive Director of Pacific Asia Tourism Pty. Ltd. (Web: pacificasiatourism.org) a consultancy undertaking sustainable tourism projects throughout the Asia Pacific region. He is also the Director of Ecolodges Indonesia (Web: ecolodgesindonesia.com) and Adjunct Professor in Sustainable Tourism at Griffith University, Australia. He sits in the Interim Advisory Committee for the new Tourism Sustainability Council, following his work as member of the Sustainable Tourism Stewardship Council and of the Partnership for Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria. His holds various international tourism industry positions including: Member of the Management Group of the SAVE Travel Alliance, Member, Advisory Board of Sustainable Travel International, Charter member of the Global Development Society, Member of the UNWTO World Committee on Tourism Ethics, Founding & Managing Partner: Oceania Sustainable Tourism Alliance (www.oceaniatourismalliance.net). Mr. Noakes is also a Member of the Committee for Environmental and Sustainable tourism for the Kokoda Track Foundation an Australian NGO which advocates for the official recognition by the Australian government of the role of Papua New Guineans during WWII and for assistance to the villages along the Kokoda trail. In 2008, Steve Noakes was presented with Ecotourism Australia's inaugural Ecotourism Medal in recognition of 30 years active engagement in the Australian and international industry and his contribution to the development of Ecotourism and to the broader sustainable tourism agenda.

ECOCLUB.com: In your long Tourism career you have done it all (academia, consultancy, own business, governance) with great success and important recognitions. Do you remember what first attracted you to this sector and what would you advise 16 year olds contemplating a 21st century career in Tourism?

Steve Noakes: It is our good fortune to be able to travel across borders and experience foreign lands and cultures. Billions on our planet can not. So, I am one of the lucky ones. I first got involved in the tourism sector about 35 years ago with a group of Australian and North American undergrads on white water kayaking and overland camping trips in New Zealand. Over the next few years I made the effort and was fortunate to travel a lot of the world working as an overland expedition guide and adventure travel promoter throughout Western and Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. Great stuff when you are young, single and perhaps a little bit silly risk taking in some pretty tight spots around foreign lands. All character building! That also gave me the vision and enthusiasm to get serious about developing adventure and youth travel products with when I returned to Australia about 1980. And, my advise for a 16 year old?  Be a traveller. We only have this one incredible planet with amazing varieties of people and places. Know what it is like for the ultimate reason we have a travel and tourism industry – to give people like you the types of international experiences where you can have the opportunity to explore first hand. It gives you a memory bank to refer to down the years as to what you felt like the first time you saw or did something remarkable in a new country. Mark Twain sums up any advise I could give: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you did not do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

ECOCLUB.com: As an Adjunct professor of Tourism, have you noted an increased or at least steady interest from Tourism students about green issues? Is it career-oriented, i.e. so as to be up to date and get a more glamorous job, or something deeper?

Steve Noakes: Certainly over the past few decades there has been a very noticeable increase in tourism student interest and awareness about green issues. Absolutely. Especially amongst those students from more advanced western economies. I am also encouraged that those students coming from emerging economies are being exposed to the experiences and mistakes from unsustainable tourism practices and are willing to take notice of more responsible tourism approaches they can hopefully take back to their home destinations. Here in Australia, we had our very first University based Professor in Tourism appointed in 1989, and now 20 years later we have about 3 dozen Universities offering some form of undergraduate or postgrad programs involving tourism and hospitality. That has resulted in a wide range of career options in the tourism and travel sector now being available in vocational education and training, university courses and research careers. What we are finding now in the Australian University sector is that generic Tourism Management type degrees are having falling enrolments with undergrad students preferring something more specialist such as Event Management, or Business Management with a Tourism major or some tourism subjects or Protected Area Management with a focus on Recreation and/or Sustainable Tourism. I have been advocating with a few Universities here to include courses and eventually a degree program in sustainable tourism and international development. Skill needs across the tourism industry are of course complex, but those who seek a career and are prepared to put in the hard yards can still find it rewarding and fulfilling. Many ecotourism operators are based in rural or remote areas, and this brings special skill and labour shortage challenges especially at peak season periods.  In Australia we have a new, independent national regulator for the vocational education and training (VET) sector which will help the professionalism and status of many career options. We are also seeing the Australian Government get behind the establishment of a National Tourism Accreditation Framework to drive improvement of the quality, professionalism and status of tourism sector jobs.

ECOCLUB.com: Many industry associations traditionally state as part of their mission the upholding of 'business ethics' and Tourism is no different, leading to Tourism Ethics committees and guidelines. Others fear corporate ethics along with corporate social responsibility are just pre-emptive actions to avoid legislation or spin to attract 'consumers'. So, in what key ways are (some) tourism companies unethical and are these all extreme cases or sometimes mainstream practices? Has the sector become any more ethical in recent years, and if so was it just the result of commercial considerations or something deeper, is something changing in society, legislation, or pressure from tourism bodies?

Steve Noakes: In destinations where there are high levels of governance, educated workforces, code of conduct/practice/standards are either legislated or policed by government or industry groups there is less chance for ‘unethical’ business practice – but it still does happen! Hopefully where consumer protection legislation, individual rights laws etc are working, this is also leading the tourism sector becoming more ‘ethical’ – consumers will demand such. In those countries where public institutions are still weak or developing, there is more chance of so-called ‘unethical’ practices.  Unethical practices cover a wide spectrum – they could vary from a hospital claiming insurance for unnecessary or unjustified surgery on a traveller injured in-country to the employ and exploitation of child labour in restaurants, entertainments strips etc, or unhealthy consolidation of channel power in the Chinese market and the influence of ethnic networks across borders as has been revealed by researcher Dr Roger March. The UNWTO Global Code of Ethics provides some useful ‘rules of the game’ for destinations.

ECOCLUB.com: A related issue is the role and position of women and children in Tourism - has that at all improved, based on your observations and global knowledge? At a time of rising unemployment, why are children still working in Tourism? Does (has) in your view Tourism lead to progressive social change and respect of human rights, or does it rather respect local, sometimes oppressive, structures and work with the status quo? Should tourists - at least those who care and understand - become vocal ambassadors of change and illuminate/report observed (perceived) injustices, or just be quiet and "leave nothing but footprints"?

Steve Noakes: In relation to the role and position of women and children in Tourism, once again, we can probably separate destinations within the more advanced economies with high levels of governance, rule of law, education and literacy standards, the resources and ability to enforce legislation relating to women and children in the labour force and those countries still developing many of the systems, resources and skills to ensure basic human rights, workplace health, gender equity and the protection of children’s rights. Yes, especially in many developing economies we still see children working in business related to catering for the wants of tourists. The onus really is on the individual nations to get their houses in order. Nelson Mandela was right when he said: ‘There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children’. Irrespective of legal system or cultural/religious traditions, if tourism does not contribute to a destination’s progressive social change and respect of human rights, it should – especially to advocate for the protection of women’s and children’s rights. Again, I’ll quote from Nelson Mandela: ‘It always seems impossible until it’s done’.

ECOCLUB.com: Your current, own project is a network of Ecolodges in Indonesia. Please explain what you are trying to do and why?

Steve Noakes: Ecolodges Indonesia is a small company with a strong corporate social responsibility agenda where ecotourism can make an active contribution to biodiversity conservation, conserve endangered wildlife and contribute to local communities. We currently have 4 ecolodges owned and operating and are advanced to build 3 more. For me as an investor, it is a grass roots opportunity to directly link many of the global or regional Pacific Asia sustainable tourism initiatives I am involved in to the realities of providing strategic direction as a Board member to the daily operations in a combination of remote wilderness locations and more accessible regions of this vast archipelago. So, as an example, we have recently reached a significant new collaboration agreement with Sustainable Travel International to commit to and implement a range of their services and we are active in support of the 2010 International Year of Biodiversity

ECOCLUB.com: Due to history, geography and culture, Indonesia seems to be - perpetually perhaps - at the crossroads. Can Tourism, and of which type, really play a significant role in leading this populous nation towards a path of prosperity, peace equality and social & ecological justice? And what key tourism policy measures should its government implement in your view?

Steve Noakes:  Ecotourism is an emerging new sector of the tourism product mix in Indonesia. The tourism development focus over the past 20 odd years has been on significant enclave resort projects such as are evident in Bali. If you go to the official Indonesia Ministry of Culture and Tourism website and do a search for ‘ecotourism’, nothing will appear. A large Indonesian team of product representatives will be on the Indonesia stand at major trade events such as ITB Berlin, but, once again, if you ask about an ‘ecotourism operator’, it’s most likely there is no knowledge of such operators by the officials at the stand. Tourism has been, and should continue to be a very important industry for Indonesia – not just from an economic contribution, but also in terms of what it can and should be doing to highlight sustainable business practices and, such as in our case, make an active contribution to biodiversity conservation and improving community livelihoods where it can. In terms of a ‘key policy measure’, we would love to see some form of national ecotourism strategy developed and supported by the government of Indonesia and the relevant provinces.

ECOCLUB.com: Your own country Australia, is considered, along with Costa Rica, a pioneer in all things Ecotourism. Which one was the catalyst: government, industry or society? Do you see the Australian ecotourism sector as growing, mature or saturated perhaps?

Steve Noakes: In comparative international terms, over the past few decades Australia has developed some very good products, industry associations, research and government linkages to help grow the ecotourism sector. Many operators have been in the sector for many decades, such as Binna Burra Mountain Lodge where my family are shareholders. This ecolodge commenced operations in the 1930’s. In the early 1990’s when Ecotourism Australia first stared, it seemed to me to be dominated by people from academia and government rather than operators, and those who attended the last annual conference have reported to me there were not too many actual ecotourism operators in attendance – more people from government and academics. But not having the time to travel to an annual conference does not necessarily mean a lack of interest by the operators in supporting the need for such a national body. I know many industry eco-operators who have very high regard for what Ecotourism Australia has done and continues to do for the industry and they will continue to support the organisation and the innovative products it provides. Ecotourism Australia’s ECO certification program has been developed to address the need to identify genuine nature and ecotourism operators and is now being exported to the world. Given the fragmented small business nature of the ecotourism sector, without the support of government agencies and Universities, I do not think Australia’s ecotourism industry would have developed to the extent it has the past 20 years. Those sectors have contributed strategic direction and linkages, generated new knowledge and provided necessary resources and assistance to help bring the industry together into a more cohesive and collective voice. Within those sectors there have been some ‘opinion leaders’ who have contributed much, often with little recognition.

ECOCLUB.com: There is a general feeling that green tourism certification, rather than making a concrete (or at least visible) difference, is a rare bureaucratic & self-punishing exercise by the private sector, largely ignored by tourists. The percentage of certified tourism businesses around the world seems to be abysmally small and, worse, not growing. As someone currently and long involved with this issue at the global level, do you entirely dismiss the above, or is there a grain of truth?

Steve Noakes: I have been involved at individual operator level and international levels of green certification for tourism for about 10 years and I know that while it has been a rough road to travel, the journey to get more businesses, destinations and communities with ‘green certification’ will bear fruit for the industry, the customers and the planet in the long run. It’s also been a tough road to travel for the various certification organisations to come up with a business model that is economically viable. Where governments have insisted on operators have an appropriate ‘green-tourism’ certification then those certification providers have a much better opportunity of making a viable business case. This has occurred in a few jurisdictions around the world. Now we are seeing major distribution companies such as Expedia creating sustainable travel initiatives that will require supplies to be within a recognised environmental performance certification process. The same is occurring in the European markets. Major hotel providers such as Accor are an indicator that ‘green tourism’ certification is moving towards the mainstream of the industry. We are seeing the same with major Convention Centres in many regions. It’s harder to get small and micro tourism enterprises into certification programs, but its beneficial for governments and industry bodies to establish programs where those businesses can be made more aware of the benefits and importance of improved environmental practices for their own business and the destination where they operate. I am encouraged by the work of agencies such as the UN Foundation, Rainforest Alliance, UNEP, UNWTO and many others to maintain the vision over many years to develop the new Tourism Sustainability Council which will be officially launched this year. It’s an ambitious agenda and fortunately, some very good people are involved in the process. It’s important that credible certification programs can give tourists confidence that the certified businesses they patronize is indeed protecting ecosystems and the well-being of local people. These certification programs also need to demonstrate to tourism operations that getting certified has positive impacts on their businesses and that governmental and non-governmental agencies can see on-the-ground impacts of certification

ECOCLUB.com: It seems fewer tourism people talk these days, at the end of a decade full of wars, financial & economic crises, pandemics, and indeed after the latest climate change talks fiasco, about the UN Millennium Development Goals or Agenda 21. However acute social problems persist in most countries of the global south, the very ones in which the international sustainable tourism sector depends upon. Do we need more industry initiatives, committees and voluntary non-binding resolutions, or is there perhaps a need, now voiced in places like South America, for a new, more radical tourism approach by governments, including binding, progressive legislation which would - say - really govern ('micromanage' for others) what a multinational hotel chain could or could not do (and own) in terms of its local, social and environmental obligations?

Steve Noakes: First, the concept of ‘sustainable tourism’ is universal – not just the ‘south’. It is a valid proposition for all countries from the very wealthy to the very poor – but with different degrees given resources, skills, knowledge, capacity, market demand and so on. And yes, I would agree that those of us who talk-the-talk and walk-the-walk on matters relating to sustainable tourism’s capacity to contribute to the achievement of the UN Millennium Development Goals often feel we are part of a really small minority group!  Tourism is a really serious player in the world’s economy, and it can do a lot more to contribute to help people escape the grasp of poverty – e.g. helping develop the infrastructure to give access to education & training, jobs, health care. Industry needs to be a part of any initiatives which governments seek to institute for it to meet its local, social and environmental obligations. Industry does not want to see Government ‘micro-managing’ the sustainable operations of their business.  Governments have the aspirations of constituencies to consider as well as industry and can play a vital coordinating and partnership role to ensure consumers are given more opportunity to have confidence in assessing the natural and human environmental status of the destination or individual business. Especially where NTO’s are promoting a ‘clean & green’ destination message, Governments and industry need to partner to have appropriate mechanisms in place to ensure the marketing message can be delivered by the industry, As a example, I think new Zealand does this very well with programs such as Qualmark  - New Zealand tourism's official mark of quality. The Kiwis also have a good system of recognising operators who are active with energy efficiency, conservation initiatives, waste management, community activities and water conservation, see www.responsibletourism.co.nz

ECOCLUB.com: We read, time and time again in world tourism body announcements that Tourism is the world's largest economic sector, and indeed one of the most-labour intensive, providing work opportunities where there would otherwise be none; a sector that miraculously contributes to peace & stability. Critics on the other hand, point out, among other things, that Tourism is largely ignored by intergovernmental fora as a soft and problem-free area, with any problem areas such as airlines being considered separately. They also argue that Tourism (especially mainstream), is the sector which exploits the most people (including immigrants and 'student trainees') through insecure, seasonal employment and 'flexible' (but otherwise long and inhumane) workdays. At a national level, many governments also do not seem to perceive Tourism as a proper economic sector, bundling it with other portfolios such as environment, culture, trade. Famous universities also seem to treat Tourism as an easy, and not so academic topic. In terms of the tourism media, offline and online, there seem to be many news repeaters and fewer reporters, more glowing reviews by hosted 'journalists' and very few critical & independent reports. Surely, all is not bleak, and progress is being made in all of the above through the hard efforts of many. But if you had a magic button and could fix one thing in World Tourism during the new decade, what would it be?

Steve Noakes: As I indicated at the beginning, the good fortune to travel is not open to everyone on our planet. So, we are the lucky ones. Travel and tourism are not perfect industries. There is the good, the bad and sometimes the ugly. But, travel to new lands can help cultivate international harmony, tolerance for different views on life, respect for others and compassion. The benefits to people, places and the environment can, and should far exceed the negatives. But, you asked for just one thing ...  So, I would suggest that we have as many national governments as possible fully realise the power (and do something about it) of sustainable tourism to contribute to peace, harmony, respect and tolerance between people and for their own national economic, environmental and social/cultural objectives. (summarised within the UN Millennium Development Goals).  This relates to an industry which can make a bigger contribution to reducing the estimated 33,000 children who die every day somewhere on our planet from avoidable causes, or help some of those 100 million kids who do not have access to a school, which enables the empowerment of women and promote gender equality and helps reduce the need to destroy our wondrous biodiversity.

ECOCLUB.com: Thank you very much.

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