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It’s a common story repeated across Asia now — and elsewhere. In the brief time that tourists are retreating from Asia’s popular destinations due to the coronavirus pandemic, wildlife are spotted around the region’s deserted waters and beaches in greater numbers than before.

Phuket’s now-deserted shores are seeing the most number of nests of rare leatherback sea turtles in two decades, while dugongs have been spotted cruising in Trang’s waters.

At Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, where getting a picture without a tourist in the background was once a feat, the challenge during the global pandemic is to find travelers lingering amid its ancient grounds.

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Time to Put Things Right

As the coronavirus pandemic abruptly changed the global overtourism tide to undertourism in just a matter of weeks, the sudden disappearance of tourists from Asia’s popular destinations is laying bare the many issues that the region’s relentless pursuit of mass tourism has brought.

Instead of looking to restore status quo, sustainability tourism professionals say now is an ideal time for destination leadership and industry stakeholders to plan for how they want the post-pandemic recovery to be.

Leatherback turtles, dugongs and crowds-free Angkor would make “a great comeback message” for Southeast Asia to jumpstart its tourism recovery, said Willem Niemeijer, CEO and founder of Yaana Ventures, which owns and operates a collection of sustainable travel and hospitality ventures in Asia.

Angkor Wat doesn’t have any tourists now and how can we keep it that way? It’s a great opportunity to attract the first wave of tourists back and promote sustainable tourism without reverting to old ways again,” he stated.

But Nicolas Dubrocard, founder and director of Audit Diagnostic Solutions Tourism, is skeptical if Thailand tourism would be able to make a concerted pivot towards sustainability, as the country’s tourism infrastructure was built with catering to ever-growing visitor numbers in mind.

Once travel restrictions are lifted and foreign tourists are allowed back into the country, Dubrocard is worried that the embattled tourism sector, in its struggle for survival, would once again emphasize quantity over quality.

“Many staff members are unemployed so the political priority is to bring back tourists to protect this sector,” he remarked. “The sustainability may not be the priority compared to saving jobs.”

Dubrocard’s sentiment is also shared by Global Sustainable Tourism Council General Manager Roi Ariel. “The coronavirus crisis definitely gives Southeast Asia a chance, but will governments and businesses take it?” he questioned.

But Ariel is seeing a glimmer of hope among destination marketing organizations, which, unlike the private sector, are less threatened by dwindling cashflow amid the coronavirus crunch and are more likely able to “take this opportunity to think ahead and plan for the new normal with sustainability part of it”.

According to Ariel, the Tourism Authority of Thailand, for instance has expressed its desire to use the crisis as an opportunity to turn its tourism path towards a sustainable one.

In a recent interview with the Bangkok Post, the authority’s governor Yuthasak Supasorn said, “This could be an opportunity within a crisis – to make sure we improve, so that in the future any revenue from tourism will be more sustainable, and wealth will spread to smaller communities.”

Reinventing Tourist Hotspots

Southeast Asian destinations that once attracted hordes of foreign tourists may face an uphill battle in getting visitors back as they emerge from the global health crisis.

Such tourist islands as Bali and Phuket, which many locals have come to shun due to perceived overly touristy yet overpriced offerings, are unlikely to be on the vacation radar of domestic tourists.

“Bali’s Kuta Beach [a sand and surf spot], which is modeled for Western tourism, probably has to completely reinvent itself to attract locals,” said Ben Dolgoff, co-founder and CEO at ForeverVacation, which operates in Bali, Malaysia, Bangkok and Vietnam.

With most travelers looking to reconnect with nature after spending copious amount of time indoors during the coronavirus lockdown, it’s more likely that travelers would be drawn to Bali’s cultural heartland of Ubud, or Uluwatu, with its access to water and space, he added.

Crisis or not, sustainable tourism still boils down to the management of visitor numbers, added Niemeijer. “We can still go back to the same number of tourists before the crisis but that must come with better visitor experience that goes hand in hand with nature conservation.”

For that to happen, sustainable tourism experts believe it is paramount for public and private sectors to join forces to properly manage visitor numbers to attractions.

“It’s about better management, not volume,” said Niemeijer, adding that Asia’s popular attractions like Bangkok’s Grand Palace and Cambodia’s Angkor Wat should sell limited prepaid slots to manage flow of visitors. In Phuket’s instance, that could mean setting up a leatherback turtle foundation and limiting access to the beaches, he suggested.

Dubrocard agreed, “To observe these wild animals and let them come back in touristic areas would mean to reduce the numbers of persons that can see them… and potentially get [visitors] ready to pay more to access protected areas.”

The crisis also spells a perfect opportunity to promote secondary and tertiary destinations in Asia, said Ariel. “Visitor dispersion to such destinations is what sustainable tourism professionals promote to counter overtourism, and it is recovery from undertourism that might push these emerging destinations to be more attractive than before.”

With the responsible travel moment that was already gaining traction prior to the crisis, a holistic approach to sustainability can only be beneficial for the tourism industry going forward.

“It is now clearer than ever that loss of biodiversity and illegal wildlife trade are very dangerous and cannot be ignored if we want to prevent future spread of zoonotic diseases,” said Ariel.

“Governments should pursue an unapologetic crackdown on illegal wildlife trade and strong protection of biodiversity to allow future economic development based on uninterrupted tourism industry.”

Photo Credit: Sea kayaking through the mangrove forests of Ao Thalane, a fishing village in Krabi, Thailand. Kalyakan / Adobe