Southeast Asian countries have been closed off from international tourism for 15 months and counting. There is hope on the horizon for gradual openings, starting with some areas of Thailand in late 2021. This is a welcome sign we all look forward to.

But this long pause has given everyone in the industry time to reflect. If we could start again, would we do anything differently? What would we do better? There may not be time to go back to zero and start from scratch, but the pause certainly has given time to consider a few challenges. 

“Tourism” is not a single entity of course, but rather a collection of people, businesses, organizations both public and private, vendors, and auxiliary services. Among these stakeholders, there is a conflicting issue on the horizon that has not been given enough airplay. That of the Quality vs Quantity tug-of-war.

Governing tourism bodies in Southeast Asia often indicate a desire to attract “quality travellers”, high-end travellers, big spenders who spend more, and spend longer. But the desire for quality is not consistent with what we often read of future tourism targets. Most Southeast Asian nations had stated, pre-Covid, targets of nearly doubling arrivals in 5-7 years. In 2019, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Lao and Myanmar had a combined 74M arrivals.  But would a target of 150M travellers by 2025 have been the best goal for all involved?

This brings up a nagging old question: why do the sheer numbers of annual visitors still register as the barometer of success in a region striving for quality? It seems an antiquated metric for some kind of loosely defined progress. 

I don’t mean to criticize tourism bodies. There are some brilliant people in those necessary organizations, and of course they need some metrics. But how are success and progress defined? Would average daily spend be a better target than the number of bodies? Would it be the choice of locations or activities, or the scope of distribution throughout the region? For that matter, who am I to impose my lofty values on how people should travel?

Every stakeholder in the fabulous tourism economy has had lots of time to ponder over the past 15 months. What is the best thing we could start doing to reshape the next 20 years? I’m likely not alone in hoping for a collective shift in Southeast Asia towards Quality, not Quantity. It is not too late to adjust the compass.

Here are a few considerations.

Praise sustainability and quality, and shift away from discount mass tourism
To go upmarket and filter the low paying masses, we need to shred the image of cheap thrills and discount fun. Focusing on quality doesn’t mean everything needs to be expensive, mind you. Southeast Asia has long been synonymous for the family-run guesthouse, the intrepid backpacker, the self-propelled traveller going by bike or motorcycle across the country. This type of travel provides one of the purest forms of trickle down tourism economics. Money direct to source, minimal environmental impact, maximum personal freedom and enjoyment. Backpackers are gold, bless them. Regardless of how Southeast Asia develops, I hope the region always attracts the intrepid traveler and maintains the authenticity to ensure they have reasons to return. 

Of course, not everyone wants to travel like that. Baby Boomer and Gen-X luxury travellers want it all, such as to explore locally, but sleep in luxury. They indulge in street food, while taking part in eco-friendly walking tours, hiking, biking, rafting, etc. This is where the thrill of backpacking and the comforts of luxury make Southeast Asia one of the world’s best destinations. A quality destination mindset will bring these guests.

But big busloads of low-paying tourists invading sacred sights on bargain holidays likely isn’t a sustainable solution. It also drives away the higher-end travellers. Southeast Asia can choose between cheap thrills and masses of low-spenders, or shift towards quality-minded travellers. Botswana, Bhutan, and New Zealand, three very distinct economies and societies, have opted for the latter, and have carved out among the world’s best tourism niches as a result.  

That said, Thailand especially has done remarkably well over the past decade of upping its luxury game, not just with top-end hotels, but with socially-minded travel concepts, artisanal cottage industries, a world-class dining scene, and more. Quality attracts quality.

Imagine what tourism would look like – or the world for that matter – if we could somehow encourage swapping quantity for quality across the entire supply chain. 

Over-tourism in some areas vs no tourism in others where it is wanted. 

How to improve the distribution model here?

Thailand and Vietnam are Texas-sized countries, and largely undiscovered. Would we be better off moving from Thailand’s pre-Covid numbers of 40 million visitors mostly spread among 6 primary locations, versus 35 million visitors spreading across 12 primary locations? What if we could switch from 3,000 visitors spending $1,000USD, to 2,000 visitors spending $2,000USD? I’d be fired from a tourism board, but would the country and its people thank us long term? 

Under-distribution is the problem, not over-tourism. 

How to solve the trend that 4M people visit Chiang Mai, while roughly 20% of that visit Phrae? And only 20% of that number visit Thailand’s northeastern Isaan region? If we continue to develop more infrastructure, attractions and hotels where travellers already are, besides the short term commercial gains, are we really contributing to a long term quality solution? 

Arguments have been raised that the lower spending travellers who support ground-level suppliers, such as street vendors, and higher-end don’t. But this where authenticity and quality merge. Many upper-end and luxury travellers want local experiences and local products. Targeting quality-minded travellers supports those vendors.

This sounds easy of course, but takes will, marketing, and incentives. Community-Based Tourism initiatives with public-private reach, such as DASTA in Thailand, do a great job of building foundations here to distribute quality tourism beyond the main destinations. Italy has attempted the same over the past decade, distributing people beyond the Big 3 sites into areas like Puglia, Basilicata, Sardinia, and Sicily. This brings people back.

Conservation and Safety.

Overpromising cheap Southeast Asia to discount mass tourism brings numerous potential hazards. 

We’ve heard enough of the overcrowded boat, or the speeding van rushing to maximize quotas rather than being paid with integrity to slow down and do fewer runs. Corner-cutting increases by over-promising discount thrills for masses of low spenders. Making sure guides and transport providers are cared for helps shift their focus to quality, not speed or volume. Stretch this out among the entire supply chain, and a focus on quality improves the livelihoods of the stakeholders on the ground. Progress has been made over the 20 years I’ve been here, but let’s not let the short term drive to recover from Covid shift our focus from the kind of quality tourism economies we can develop.  

One way the government can support this is by enforcing safety standards with the same efficiency as other tourism regulations such as ensuring guides are fully licensed. One often sees tourism police roaming attractions looking for unlicensed guides, but is there equal prevention of motorized boats entering limestone caves in the south?  At the same time there has been seemingly lackadaisical enforcement of safety standards, or the penalties so low that they are worth risking in order to overload a boat or have a driver working 16-hr shifts. Some future-minded balance is needed here.

Another area would be quotas on numbers to protected areas. There are many parts of the world that limit the number of people to their sites. British Columbia in Canada has strict maximums on the famed Westcoast Trail to ensure it not only brings the right kinds of guests, but to future-guard its integrity for subsequent generations. Thailand has been wise to do the same such as Maya Bay and the Similan Islands, which may rotate closing certain months of the year to maintain an ecological balance.

Cooperation among competitors is possible with the right long term goals in mind. Dive sites that observe low numbers and shift locations seasonally or among different operators, for example. Evidence that this can work can be found in Songkhla and Phattalung in Southern Thailand, where several fishing communities agree to rotate locations by mutual agreement to ensure “enough fish for all tomorrow” wins over “all the fish for me today”. These grass-roots examples could shift to tourism providers as well, with incentives. But targets focused on numbers makes that less likely.

What if there were incentives for tourism boards and experience providers to bring about lasting changes like sunscreen that doesn’t damage coral, or employment incentives for companies that pursue alternative modes of transportation rather than car/plane, and an emphasis on breaking down large groups into smaller ones, staggering them out, giving the local environment a chance? Is it impossible?  

Environment, wildlife, balance.

Quality tourism initiatives can also play a role in slowing wildlife poaching and illegal logging, such as resorts like Shinta Mani Wild and Cardamom Tented Camp in alliance with Wildlife Alliance, Freeland Org, among others. These attract lower numbers of higher-spending guests. A winning model for all stakeholders.

There are some wonderful things happening in Southern Thailand, with community-based tourism efforts at preserving Dugong numbers, seagrass planting, as well as mangrove protection. With this quality mindset, we see smaller group numbers of eco-conscious travellers contributing to the preservation of delicate environments and communities, as opposed to images of masses of travellers invading Phi Phi Islands on day trips. 

Thailand’s long term protection of mangroves, wetlands, coral reefs, not to mention the various ethnic communities and sacred sites are a strong enough reason to scrutinize the focus on quantity alone.

Media is taking note, and rather than being lectured about the inherent ills of travel, or flight-shaming with the luddites, there are some positive messages out there such as Adam Minter’s Bloomberg essay where he says “Traveling right just means thinking more like a local”. I agree. 

It’s not impossible to choose quality over quantity. Here is a (vastly oversimplified, admittedly) prescription I feel will provide greater long-term benefits for Thailand, and other Southeast Asian countries:

  • A focus on smaller groups with higher average spending.
  • Suppliers paid fairly with their long term livelihood and guest safety in mind.
  • Emphasize environmentally sensible experiences, use local transit where possible, encourage light activity like cycling, walking, kayaking, and stagger groups to sensitive areas like marine parks, reefs, nature preserves, or landmarks.
  • Buy and experience local: support community-based tourism initiatives, and ensure small communities get their share of tourism revenue.
  • Extend the guest experience beyond the 5 or 6 most popular destinations, and encourage stretching out to more secondary destinations.

None of this happens overnight. But I hope this pause has given enough time for everyone to see that the number of visitors is not an ideal metric to determine the success and sustainability of a tourism dependent destination. 

Most of all, let’s encourage all stakeholders that “less is more”, and position Southeast Asia towards long term quality, not long term quantity. This ensures enough fish for everyone, tomorrow.