In recent years, the global tourism industry in general and Vietnam in particular have aimed at sustainable development more than ever. Moreover, the pandemic in the past 2 years has once again made the community rethink the need for doing business more sustainably in the future. During this period, a new term called “regenerative tourism” also appeared and is supposed to be even more superior than sustainable tourism. So, how do these factors affect the sustainable development of Vietnam’s tourism industry?

Destination Review had a conversation with Ms. Nguyen Lan Chi, founder of Empower Tourism Solutions – an independent consulting firm on sustainability in tourism based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands to learn about the changes in the current sustainable trends and get her ideas on how to develop effective sustainable tourism.

I started working on sustainable tourism in the 2010-2011 period. Over the past 10 years, I see that the sustainability in tourism development in Vietnam has improved a lot. With my experience working with businesses around the globe, I can say that the sustainable story in Vietnam is currently quite good compared to even more developed destinations in the region such as Thailand, Bali, Korea, or Japan. Vietnamese businesses are putting great efforts and their investment in sustainable development is also very high compared to 10 years ago. Part of that is because they realize that this is the trend of the whole market. Besides, I find that the travel businesses are going faster than the accommodation businesses, although the conditions of the accommodation units are usually better. For a travel agency, they will often be limited by their dependencies on suppliers, while an accommodation business has the ability to be proactive in sustainable development and a larger budget.

Regarding destination perspective, Vietnam has a lot of potential for development, but the biggest limitation is the lack of cooperation among related parties. People are working individually and independently for the benefit of each business. The policies from the destination management organization (DMO) are also quite fragmented. At the same time, the DMO has not been able to connect stakeholders in the industry to develop in the same direction. One of the destinations that I see doing well in Vietnam is Quang Nam when the stakeholders there are coordinating closely with the appropriate policies for synchronous sustainable development from DMO. Of course, there is still a lot of work to be done, but the close coordination of the stakeholders is already a solid foundation for future success.

From my point of view, the biggest problem that not only Vietnam is facing is that businesses and management agencies do not understand sustainable tourism as well as how to apply sustainable practices properly. Currently, there are quite a few tour operators that have been misunderstanding sustainability as a type of tour and promoting sustainable tours in parallel with other types of tour such as city tours, climbing tours, etc. It can be affirmed that sustainable tourism is not a type of product. This misunderstanding will lead to misleading sustainable development in the company. Even developed countries still face this problem.

In addition, most companies in Vietnam only look at sustainability issues from environmental perspective such as picking up trash, saving electricity or not using plastic products. Theoretically, sustainable tourism development is a tripod including Economy – Society – Environment. In a nutshell, operating tourism in a sustainable way means taking into account both positive and negative economic, social and environmental impacts in the present and in the future. From that, we can balance addressing visitor, industry, environmental and community needs, as well as conserving biodiversity at the destination. The ultimate goal is to minimize negative impacts and increase positive impacts in tourism operations.

Finally, a barrier for many destinations as well as businesses from the very beginning to approach sustainable development is the concern that this investment will be costly and need to be applied on a large scale. However, in reality, there are many areas and criteria for sustainable adoption and companies do not have to apply them all at once. I think the definition of sustainability should be understood more simply and practically instead of extravagant concepts and theoretical models.

There are some sustainable practices that can be easily applied right away such as taking care of staff, managing the office operation properly, and setting regulations to save energy and resources. Regarding tour operators, they can choose a supplier with many sustainability-related practices for a slightly higher price instead of preferring a low-cost one. Some hotels are now also starting to reduce electrical energy by increasing the temperature of the lobby and office. It can be seen that companies should start with one to two small practices and then adjust and develop other sustainability activities. I believe that starting from such small things will not only help companies avoid large-scale investment at once but also be able to understand what is most suitable for them to be able to develop sustainably in long term.

One of the solutions that I feel is possible at the moment to solve the lack of information and correct orientation problem is joining a sustainable organization or certification. In order to develop sustainable tourism, it is not only necessary for policies from the tourism industry but also policies from other related sectors. Therefore, tourism management organizations sometimes still find it difficult to come up with good criteria or policies for businesses to follow, even if they want to. Leveraging criteria and capabilities from reputable organizations or sustainability certifications will be able to solve this problem.

For example, the Travelife sustainability certification is one of the best certifications for tour operators in the world today. Such international and objective organizations will be able to check all information from businesses and give advices on appropriate sustainable practices. In fact, companies themselves can communicate with travelers and implement those practices. Howerver, having a third party come forward to verify and certify might helps customers gain more trust and confidence. Furthermore, companies also can get clear sets of criteria to evaluate the overall picture of their company’s sustainability and build a long-term development plan. This is a viable option at the moment and there are many companies around the world doing so.

At the time of 2020 when the Covid epidemic started, I was afraid that people would not care about sustainability this year. But on the contrary, the pandemic became the driving force motivating people to develop more sustainably in the future so that they can be ready to deal with unexpected crises. In 2020, Travelife recorded an ever-higher number of members. This shows how sustainable trends in tourism are being prioritized. Many major travel groups in the world such as TUI, Transat, Abercrombie & Kent… have now begun to require their partners to have sustainability certification as a criterion for cooperation. Large cruise companies such as Royal Caribbean and MSCs have also required suppliers in arrival destinations to meet sustainability standards. These are very good incentives to promote other companies in the industry as well as destinations to develop sustainable tourism.

In terms of international definition, “regenerative tourism” is tourism that does not cause negative effects to the destination and will make the destination better than it was before. And what people are arguing about how regenerative tourism is different from sustainable tourism is that sustainable tourism focuses on doing no harm while regenerative tourism leaves a good impact making the destination better.

In my opinion, the word “renewable tourism” is leading people down the wrong path. First of all, I realize that many people are also misunderstood the concept of sustainable tourism. They think sustainability is about doing no harm when traveling. That is impossible! Sustainable tourism is about minimizing the negative impact and increasing the positive impact on the destination. Examples of limiting negative impacts could be reducing carbon emissions, respecting local cultures, or not degrading the culture of destinations. On the other hand, increasing the positive impact is that instead of eating at a foreign restaurant, you choose to eat at a local restaurant, instead of buying imported products from another country, you buy local products or you choose to stay at hotels applying sustainable practices. Therefore, the essence of sustainable tourism has already been to limit negative impacts and increase good impacts on destinations.

The second thing when it comes to regenerative tourism that people are confused about is making the destination better after the visitors leave. The average travel time of travelers worldwide ranges from 3 to 3.5 days per destination. So how to make the destination better in such a short time? The word better should be understood as contributing more to the community in terms of economic benefits, minimizing environmental impacts, but can not make an entire destination better in a short time.

Therefore, for me, regenerative tourism is only a way of romanticizing the concept of sustainable tourism. When tourists hear that they will be engaging in regenerative tourism to better support the destination, they will feel good, but how it will be practiced is unclear. There are no specific guidelines on how to operate and practice regenerative tourism. When a concept is proposed but cannot be applied in reality and implemented for everyone to imagine, it will only stop at theory and desire.

Previously, sustainable tourism and responsible tourism have been two concepts used in parallel making people confuse that they are the same or two different concepts. And even up to now, when regenerative tourism appeared, I think the ultimate goal is still to minimize the negative impact and help the destination maintain sustainability.

There is an optimal solution that is to manage carry capacity. Of course, by reducing the quantity, we will have to think about increasing the quality, possibly by increasing the cost of the product. People often worry that increasing costs will affect the number of guests, but in fact, there will certainly still be travelers who can afford it. So the question is do we want to receive fewer guests with better quality, or a lot of guests that harm the destination. With the management of carrying capacity, the destination can now only receive 30 guests and earn the same revenue as picking up 100 guests at a time like before, while ensuring a good experience for visitors as well as conserving destination resources.

When looking at this measure, it will certainly have short-term effects on the income of some private businesses, but the destination will need to prioritize long-term goals. We want to operate a high turnover destination for a few parties for 2 years and not consider the impact on destination resources or want to operate a destination for 20 years and benefit all parties. The story of long-term development in Vietnam is still lacking at this point.

Besides, Vietnam is a fairly good trend-following market, so instead of setting a general orientation for all businesses, let’s start with big corporations first. Then, smaller and medium companies will surely follow and create a significant effect for the whole destination. Regarding destination level as well, it will be difficult for the whole country to try to develop sustainable tourism at the same time. Therefore, we should start from 1 to 2 popular destinations and from there extend the lesson to other destinations. 

We cannot expect to apply anything on a large scale immediately, but always have to start from a pioneer, from which other parties will quickly follow the trend. I really hope that our country can see sustainable development in that direction and instead of using our current resources for many different destinations, let’s focus on investing well in one destination first. Rather than making mistakes at 10 points, do well at 1 point and learn from that to have a more effective plan to develop in the next points accordingly.

Finally, it is important for businesses to educate their customers. Businesses are service providers but the end-users of services are tourists and of course not all visitors are responsible and aware of sustainability. Businesses should look at this story proactively to communicate and orient their customers appropriately, even if they haven’t asked for it yet.

Previously, Vietnamese companies used to think that only tourists in Europe and America were interested in sustainability, while Vietnamese or Asian tourists did not care. It is a misconception because people in developing countries will certainly have less awareness than in developed countries. But that’s why the role of businesses in educating customers becomes important. Especially, businesses that are only doing Vietnamese and Asian markets often hesitate and ignore sustainable practices should pay more attention to this. Because it is clear that during Covid, people have seen that even Asian tourists are paying a lot of attention to sustainability, especially the younger generation.

I hope in the future, both management levels and related stakeholders can sit together and make contributions to coordinate and maximize the potential of Vietnam’s destination.

Thank you so much for your sharing!

#Take-A-Sip is a series exploiting new perspectives from experts on striking issues in tourism and travel.

Sustainable development – a dilemma of the tourism industry

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