Sustainable tourists

Mario Hardy, CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA)

As the CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), Mario Hardy has been advocating for the development of sustainable tourism through dispersion of tourists to secondary markets, innovation, and creative offerings for many years. Business Daily talked to the tourism expert about how the sharing economy can improve Macau’s hotel and tourism industry and if having an annual visitor cap could resolve excessive visitation in the city

What is the main goal of PATA?
Our mission is really to help destinations and businesses to develop sustainable tourism. We include both private and public sector organisations; we have almost 100 destinations who are members of PATA and over 850 corporations who are members as well, including 75 universities.
We’re a bridge between the private and public sector, we’re trying to bring people together around the same table and have some meaningful discussions about the development of tourism and help destinations who might be facing challenges or difficulties over tourism or not enough tourists. Or simply talk about business and how to develop it more efficiently.

Your organisation emphasises the sustainable development of tourism. In which areas do you believe these developments need to be made?
It’s very important for the organisation. I always mention that when we talk about sustainability, the first thought that comes to mind is the environment and climate change. These issues are an important part and we do our best in those areas too, but it’s not the only part of sustainability, which is also about business, people, communities and society in general. We want to make sure we don’t end up in situations with excessive tourism, with residents complaining and saying ‘enough is enough, get out of my city’, or starting to have racial conflicts due to excessive occupation of their space.
It’s about better planning and planning for the long term. Planning for too much or planning for not enough. Finding the right balance is always a challenge. Sometimes it’s seasonal, sometimes it depends on the days of the week. I think there are solutions for all these problems, we just need to plan better.

Excessive visitation is something that seems to apply to Macau, with some reports believing the city could see 40 million visitors annually by 2020. Do you believe Macau is ready for that amount and what similar cases have you seen in the region?

I think this issue is very pertinent to many destinations. We all know about Barcelona, Venice or Reykjavik (Iceland) - European cities where residents are very vocal about the issue of over tourism. In Asia, cities are maybe less vocal, but certainly there are areas such as Angkor Wat (Cambodia), which as a UNESCO site has way too many tourists, with the region not being able to handle the situation, or handling it badly.
I always say, there are 17,508 islands in Indonesia, but everyone goes to one (Bali) and not even the entire island, but just a part of it.
Thailand also suffers from this in certain destinations such as Koh Samui, Chiang Mai, Pattaya or Phuket, but there’s so much more to the country than these destinations, just like there’s so much more in Cambodia than Angkor Wat.
PATA has been promoting for almost four years what we refer to as the dispersal of tourism: getting tourists to explore the secondary destinations in the rest of the country, to plan for infrastructure development in these regions, because it takes time. If suddenly millions of people started to fly to Lombok, Indonesia they wouldn’t be ready for it.

What regions have you seen that have successfully enforced measures to control tourist numbers?
Probably the best case would be the Kingdom of Buthan. This might sound controversial, but they control the number of tourists that can enter the country every year. Some of the local tour operators obviously are not very satisfied with that because it hits their business, they want to grow but they can’t because there’s a cap. However I think they’re actually doing the right thing. They have a balance of not accepting more tourists until they can handle and cope with them. They’re saying we can accept X amount, and next year maybe a little bit more, after we develop new roads, new infrastructure in the East where there's none at the moment. It’s a small country so it’s maybe a bit easier than other places. They know how many rooms they have, they know what is their maximum occupation per day, per week or per month, and say ‘this is how much we can cope with’.
For me, it’s one of the leading examples of how to properly manage tourism. If a country was to start from scratch today, this is how I would envision it to manage and control the number of tourists.

Although such a cap has to be a publicly-led measure, does it have to be completely government-run?
Yeah, but hopefully with some type of collaborations and agreements with the private sector, if it is the right thing to do for the country and the industry. After all, this also allows them to charge a premium for it, it is expensive to go to Bhutan, but it’s a privilege.

Which sector do you see pushing more towards the measures for sustainable tourism PATA advocates?
It depends from country and destination. If I was to generalise, I would say probably the private sector is pushing more for change. Maybe sometimes not for the right change, but I think they’re probably the ones more vocal about it.

Macau has also been, and is catering to, a very specific type of customer, the Chinese tourist, for many years. What risks does this situation entail and how can Macau improve?
There’s a large risk of being largely dependent on a source market or one type of product. What happens when you’re no longer the flavour of the day? I’ve seen this in many destinations. Look at what happened in South Korea, where over 60 per cent of their source market originated from mainland China. Because of the [THAAD anti-missile defence system] crisis, there’s not a single [Chinese] tourist going to South Korea anymore. Overnight they lost over 60 per cent of their market. It will come back, they’ll resolve the issue, but overnight they lost a huge chunk of their market.
The message of this for any destination, is to make sure you have a good mix of source destination markets and product offerings. That’s what Macau needs to find: what is the other thing they can offer? What really helps in Macau are the shows you have. I know people from Singapore, Taiwan or Thailand that come here just because there’s a big show in town. Macau should provide more shows with celebrities that can make more people willing to fly over.

In Macau, the majority of tourists concentrate on certain spots or areas. What methods can be used to convince tourists to visit secondary or lesser-known attractions?
There’s a lot of ways we can encourage people to go and discover. There needs to be collaboration between the public and private sectors to put packages, to tell stories differently, create itineraries.
In Taipei, Taiwan we’re hearing how to use art to create different pathways for people to circulate, or create in the surrounding villages or mountains paths where you place some sculptures or interactive technology. Not just something that can give people an excuse to take selfies, which everyone loves in Asia, but something that actually pushes people to explore something different.
You need to think of it differently. What would entice someone to start from a different location or decide to explore a different area? It sounds silly, but maybe a yellow brick road will help discover something different.

What innovations can support the development of sustainable tourism?
There are so many out there available. Tell stories about the destination to get people to know it and understand it better, to share about new places that people don’t know about, but that are wonderful. Social media plays a good role in doing this. Gamification is also an interesting way to affect this, such as apps, contests or competitions. We’ve seen the success of the Best Job in the World campaign in Australia, how it drove a better knowledge of the destinations. There’s a lot that can be played with that, it’s not high-tech, it’s low-tech but it works. If you want to go a little bit more high-tech, you can do things like beacons to solve the issue of over-tourism, by creating virtual pathways that drive people to go and discover something different. Robotics and all of this is cool and fun but it’s too early, they’re not sophisticated enough at this stage.

How can sharing economy services such as a Uber and Airbnb, which have faced opposition from the Macau government, help in developing the local tourism market?
I’m totally behind the sharing economy. I think it’s a wonderful creation and I hope we can share a lot more other stuff that we have. There are plenty of other sharing websites, where we can share skis, surfboards and even dresses. I’m being asked this question very often by governments and the private sector, about if there should be regulations on these services. I usually respond that there is a role for the government to play with Uber and Airbnb in terms of safety and security in collecting money. They should be paying taxes like anyone else or any other business and they are, maybe not in all jurisdictions but in certain places. That’s the role of the government, that’s its job. Now, is it its job to stop them and block them from coming into the market or creating new opportunities? Absolutely not. It’s free world competition, and the winners win.
Of course the government should put in place policies to make it a fair market, if hotels are paying a huge amount of taxes and the guy next door with a great property on Airbnb doesn’t pay any. But for the hoteliers that are against this idea I would say, sorry guys, you just have to be more creative. Be innovative, do something different.

What examples of hotels being innovative have you seen?
I’ve seen this case of a very successful Airbnb apartment which had an incredible idea. Why no hotel has thought it [I don’t know]. [It’s]of recreating the room of Van Gogh. An exact replica of the room where he worked and died, with the paintings and everything. How cool is that? You’re offering an experience. There are boutique hotels who offer incredible experiences. I stayed in one in Barcelona recently, which has a 4D immersive Virtual Reality experience, which reflects on the walls and transported me into something different. I fell asleep under the ocean with turtles floating around the room and I woke up in space. It was fantastic. I also met this gentleman in Abu Dhabi who owns a hotel chain called the Jannah Group. He found out that around one of his main properties there were a lot of Airbnb’s. So instead of competing with them, he went to them and said ‘listen how about we make a deal. You need someone to manage keys and cleaning, I can do that for you, and all of your guests can enjoy the hotel facilities, use the pool, the gym, etc. Of course if they’re using the facilities they can have a drink, lunch or dinner in my property’. It’s win-win for everybody. That’s being creative. It’s Airbnb and hotel owners collaborating and sharing some space together.

Do you believe new technological changes in booking systems will bring an end to traditional travel agencies?
No, but they do need to change and adapt. Every business in the world has to embrace technology regardless of what industry you work in. You can’t ignore technology anymore, you have to embrace it and adapt your business to the changes coming up. Change the way you work, offer something different, there will always be a place for something unique.
Traditional agencies need to use technology to know their clients and personalise their offerings. If you don’t adapt you’ll die and be replaced.

Is the average tourist nowadays much harder to satisfy?
Yes, because they’re more experienced. They’ve travelled much, they’ve seen a lot, they want to experience something different. The days of waking up in a hotel where you have no sense of place are over. I wake up in dozens of hotel rooms every week and I have no idea where I am. I could be in Istanbul, Shanghai or New York and the room looks exactly the same. But if I stay in a boutique hotel in Shanghai that has a Chinese decor then yeah, I feel like I’m in China.

Then what would be your opinion on the style of the integrated resorts in Macau?
My only regret for Macau is that, if you want to be like the Las Vegas of Asia, fine, but why not make it more Macanese, more local and unique? Instead of being an exact replica of Las Vegas?
I guess with Macau being so close to mainland China, it allows Chinese an opportunity to experience Vegas, I can understand that aspect.
For Macau as a destination, it would’ve been nice to have a sense of place, where you know you’re in Macau with all the mixed heritage of China and Portugal.