Ecotourism in the 'new normal' will mix old methods and 'strong science'
Rosette Adel ( - June 30, 2020 - 8:43pm

MANILA, Philippines — With COVID-19 pandemic changing the landscapes of most industries globally, local and international ecotourism experts recently discussed how they plan on innovating and redesigning the ecotour experience for travelers under the so-called “new normal.”

“For ecotourism, the new normal is actually the old normal. In walking treks and canoeing, for example, you’re dealing with quite small numbers in quite remote areas where the risk [of COVID-19] is very low,” Tony Charters, vice-Chairperson of the Global Ecotourism Network and an international consultant with 25 years of experience based in Australia, said in a webinar hosted by the Masungi Georeserve late May.

This was echoed by John Roberts, group director of sustainability for Minor Hotels which operates more than 500 hospitality properties across the globe.

“We [in ecotourism] have a head start. We should be coming back quicker than mass tourism,” Roberts, also the director of the Conservation and Elephants of Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation in Thailand, said.

Digital transformation

Boboi Costas, founder of Grassroots Travel and a former tourism officer of Cebu province, said ecotourism under the new normal will be “based on trust paired with strong science,” citing the pivot to digital transformation.

"Local communities must innovate or else they will perish… They have to embrace digital transformation boldly," Costas said referring to the change in visitor and crowd management.

He is hopeful that the government and private sector partners could explore how to “provide digital skills training to communities to empower them. With the new normal, they’ll be able to promote their sites online.”

He cited that the local government of Alonguisian in Cebu hired community leaders and tour guides as COVID response frontliners and marine sanctuary guards.

The former Cebu tourism officer said several options could be explored when it comes to ecotourism as it can be combined with wellness activities, culinary and farm tourism, as well as nature-based activities such as bird watching.

Costas said he sees the need to limit the experience of ecotourists to “day tours” for now unless they have places to stay within the area.

Camping in the time of COVID-19

Roberts, on the other hand, said “camping might be an ideal way to travel.”

“I was gonna say camping would be ideal because you bring your own room with you. As long as you’re staying away from everyone else it may be the ideal way to travel,” Roberts said, adding that travelers can even bring their own tent.

“Again as long as it’s managed with carrying capacity and you’re not harming the environment, it seems like the ideal way to stay away from catching this thing,” he added, referring to COVID-19.

Costas agreed and said he likewise thinks camping would be allowed under the new normal as long as proper guidelines would be followed.

COVID-19 safety protocols

The ecotourism experts agreed that its old practices may continue and may even serve as models for other tourism sectors. However, they all concurred the need to add precautionary measures such as incorporation of hygiene standards, social distancing measures.

Costas added that there is a need to coordinate with local health practitioners since there is an ongoing health crisis.

The Department of Tourism, for its part, said it is looking forward to an improved ecotourism industry.

“Ecotourism further instills in visitors the respect and appreciation for the culture of indigenous or local communities, while giving its people a viable form of livelihood. The situation brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic has opened our eyes to the fragile nature of our industry,” Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat said in a statement.

"As we begin our recovery, this session provides stakeholders the perfect opportunity to discuss how we can strengthen and improve the ecotourism industry, making it more flexible, resilient, and better suited to withstand times of uncertainty and difficulty in the future,” she said.

'Boracay 6-month rehab a good model'

Meanwhile, asked how the Philippines can continue to attract foreign travelers to experience ecotourism in the country, Charters said the country must maintain its move to practice sustainability.

“There was a lot of global discussion about Boracay and how that was managed,” the international consultant said.

“And I think to keep those sorts of projects at the forefront saying that the Philippines is doing things in a sustainable way to keep that profile,” he also said, adding that the infrastructure in the country must also be prioritized.

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