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Debate on ‘High Value Low Impact Tourism’ Takes Place at PATA Event in Bhutan

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Editor’s Note: ATTA President Shannon Stowell served as a speaker at the PATA Responsible Tourism Conference & Mart event featured below, met with members, and participated in an exploration of Bhutan in partnership with industry leaders and conference hosts.

Bangkok – The Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) has opened its three-day Adventure Travel and Responsible Tourism Conference and Mart (AT&RTCM) in Bhutan, one of the world’s most secret and sought-after destinations. The event is the first international travel trade event to be held in the country.

Under the theme “High Value Tourism, Low Impact Footprints,” AT&RTCM, running February 4-7, will address key issues facing responsible and sustainable travel. On February 6 a buyer-seller mart takes place for companies specialising in adventure and responsible tourism.

The AT&RTCM has attracted 232 delegates. Some 51 sellers from 35 companies have arrived from eight destinations including Bhutan, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Among 48 international buyers from 18 destinations, 88% are first time buyers. The event has drawn a strong presence from Japan, Korea ROK, Singapore, USA and other destinations. Some 19 international media are in attendance.

Mr Martin J Craigs, PATA CEO said: “PATA is proud to be part of this historic event in Bhutan, Land of the Thunder Dragon. Bhutan’s ethos of high value tourism with a low impact footprint is one that many destinations would like to follow. All of us can learn from the Bhutan example and the high value-low impact debate it attracts.”

AT&RTCM started February 3 with a complimentary tour of the Paro Valley and a full-day trip called the “Pursuit of Happiness,” to Thimphu, organised by the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) and the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO).

An E-Tourism – New Media Boot Camp was held February 4, the fourth E-Tourism Asia Boot Camp after Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. Mr Jens Thraenhart, President of Dragon Trail, and organizer of the boot camp session in Bhutan, said it was designed to help local tourism businesses better leverage the Internet, mobile, and technology.

Mr Kesang Wangdi, Director General, Tourism Council of Bhutan and Mr Hiran Cooray, PATA Chairman officially welcomed delegates during the opening session in Bhutan on February 4.

On February 5, Ms Anna Pollock, CEO, DestiCorp UK Ltd delivered the keynote address, “High Value Tourism, Low Impact Footprints.”

She said: “Adventure travel operators will survive and prosper over the next decade if they understand and harness the powerful forces for change occurring throughout the world. Achieving higher yields and making less negative impact requires a shift in the operating model of tourism. The industrial model on which tourism is based is collapsing. As it matures, it produces diminishing net returns to all participants, and relies on volume growth to compensate for yield declines.”

Ms Pollok added: “As visitor volume increases, so do the costs associated with resource depletion, pollution and wealth concentration. A positive, viable alternative model is needed that focuses on place rather than product, puts purpose before profit, understands that it is about personality as opposed to brand, focuses on value (yield) over volume (price discounting) and learns to pull in customers rather than push or promote to them.”

During the Plenary Session panel debate on February 5, Mr Rick Antonson, President and CEO, Tourism Vancouver, said: “Success with low impact tourism that brings high value requires shared attitudes of ‘good guests and good hosts’. Visitors that offer high value and low impact are becoming among the most treasured guests in our industry. As tourism becomes the world’s largest industry, there will be ever more respect placed on those visitors who offer high value and low impact.”

In the same session, Mr Thuji Dorji Nadik, Director (Specialist), Tourism Council of Bhutan said: “By targeting high value tourism, tourism benefits are being distributed more equitably. In Bhutan, our challenge is to spread the benefits equitably and ensure regional balance in tourism development.”

Ms Isabel Sebastian, Sustainability Advisor, Yangphel Adventure Travel & Zhiwa Ling Hotel, Bhutan said: “Many visitors to Bhutan can attest to the fact that this is a country of ‘happy coincidences’. Tourists to Bhutan are woven into the daily flow of people’s lives, rituals and landscapes with very little staged experiences. The Bhutan experience will only keep attracting high value/ low impact tourists as long as tourists continue to meld into life in Bhutan and only as long as the authenticity of this experience is protected. Herein lies the greatest challenge for all involved tourism industry players. We all need a lot of courage and wisdom to ensure that the Bhutan experience is protected.”

Mr David Wilks, Director, Commercial Business, Department of Conservation – Te Papa Atawhai, New Zealand, addressed Plenary Session II on best case studies from New Zealand, “100% Pure You”. He said: “From a tiny country at the bottom of the world has emerged one of the most recognized tourism brands globally. 100% Pure New Zealand wasn’t just clever marketing; it was also a bit of good luck. In an increasingly well wired world, delivering on an aspirational brand promise can be tough. For New Zealand to do this our tourism operators must face the challenges and opportunities that come from understanding that conservation is good for business — and business is good for conservation.”

The ribbon cutting ceremony on February 5 was presided over by Mr Kesang Wangdi, Director General, Tourism Council of Bhutan, Mr Hiran Cooray, PATA Chairman and Mr Martin J Craigs, PATA CEO. Local and international journalists from China, India and Nepal attended the event.

Mr Costas Christ, President, Beyond Green Travel LLC/Editor and Columnist, National Geographic Traveler/Chairman, World Travel and Tourism Council -Tourism for Tomorrow Awards, USA delivered the closing address on “experiential and transformation travel”.

He said: “Sustainable tourism may be the most significant transformation in the history of modern travel, as it continues to redefine the global tourism industry as we have known it. It also transforms the way people travel, emphasising meaningful experiences that both enrich the individual traveller and help to safeguard cultural and natural heritage in destinations around the world.”

He added: “This is not a trend or a fad, but rather, an evolution of travel and tourism. We are living in a remarkable time of new and inspirational innovation in sustainable travel that is rewriting the way tourism businesses operate. It is also sparking a growing awareness among today’s travellers about giving back to people and the planet. Those businesses that understand this sustainable tourism transformation that is underway and become part of it, will be the businesses that prosper in the emerging global green economy.”

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