|Ecotourism and other Services Derived from Forests in the Asia- Pacific Region: Outlook to 2010. (FAO - Forestry, 1997)|
|4. OUTLOOK: ISSUES, TRENDS, IMPLICATIONS, AND OPTIONS|
Issue/trend: There is a trend toward enhancing the skills of ecotourism operators as part of the need to ensure high quality visitor experiences and to sustain the economic viability of these operators. Simultaneously, many bona fide ecotourism operators (those that adhere to ecotourism principles) are trying to differentiate themselves from operators who use the label solely as a marketing tool.
Options: Recognize the inherent difficulties for ecotourism operators, arising from the nature of small scale businesses operating in remote regions, and provide appropriate assistance through government agencies, industry associations, and vocational and/or university training programmes.
The following section describes some ecotourism operator difficulties and needs, using the Australian context as an example (Lindberg and McKercher 1997). Though there is variability across countries, similar difficulties exist elsewhere (Yong 1996), and several observers stress the importance of enhancing professionalism amongst ecotourism operators (e.g., Chudintra 1993).
Best estimates suggest that about 600 businesses are involved in the Australian ecotourism sector (Cotterill 1996). Dozens of new operators are entering the industry monthly and a similar number likely are deciding the leave the sector. Cotterills profile of the industry suggests that (in Australia):
· the industry is comprised of small operators with most having four or fewer staff;
· the average life of enterprises is 10 years; and
· each operator primarily provides either day tours or extended tours to one to three natural areas.
The industry faces many operational issues that will affect the long term viability of many businesses. Given a goal of sustainability, the industry as a whole, if not individual operators, must remain viable. A major issue for the sector is the lack of business expertise on the part of new entrants (Cotterill 1996). Most new entrants have little practical business or business planning background, and many also are woefully under-capitalized. Business planning emerged as one of the three most critical issues identified by Australian tour operators in a survey of new eco and adventure businesses conducted by the Victorian Tourism Operators Association (VTOA 1995). Information needs include basic business planning, business development, marketing issues, accounting and book keeping, accessing finance, pricing, booking and reservations procedures, taxation issues, cost control and new business development. Indeed, the issues identified by the ecotourism sector are similar to those identified by the small business in general (Meredith 1993; Reynolds, Savage and Williams 1994).
The lack of business expertise affects all aspects of the ecotourism operation including such fundamental issues as product development. Cotterills (1996) research identified the need to package products better, coordinate itineraries, and improve product quality and presentation. The ecotourism sector is unique in that it serves small numbers of clients, often has a limited number of trips, and often is constrained by seasonality issues. As a result, gross revenues often are low and the industry as a whole faces seasonal cash flow crises.
Marketing often emerges as a key issue for ecotourism businesses. Traditionally, ecotourism products have not been marketed effectively through the travel trade (Wild 1996). Many operators do not understand how the travel trade works. Moreover, many have not developed their pricing structure to accommodate the up-to-30% commissions demanded by wholesalers and inbound operators. On the other hand, the travel trade largely has been uninterested in selling ecotourism products. The inbound, wholesale, and retail travel system is geared to selling mass tourism experiences in which large numbers of people purchase carefully packaged and standardized products. Until recently, few travel agencies have been interested in selling specialist tourism products (Richardson 1996; Southern 1996).
Practical operational problems that affect the profitability of some ecotourism operations also were identified. Cotterill (1996) cited the need to ensure product consistency. He notes that in some locations the accommodation is substandard for the quality and price of the experience offered. The end result is deficient product quality, which threatens to reduce consumer satisfaction. Although many ecotourists are prepared to trough it, the facilities and services must be at suitable standards. A more strategic approach to planning the tour and a better understanding of satisfying client needs would address this weakness.
In a similar manner, the effective hiring, management, training, and rewarding of staff emerged as a significant issue in the Cotterill (1996) study. The first imperative is to determine the appropriate staffing level. Some larger businesses have a client to staff ratio as high as 20:1. For specialist products, the client-staff ratio can be as little as 2:1. The second imperative is to find enough suitably skilled staff to perform the necessary duties. Sourcing suitable staff in rural areas can be a problem, and training staff is costly. The third imperative is efficient employment in the face of seasonality. Like most tourism businesses, ecotourism operators experience peak periods in which large numbers of staff may be needed. During the rest of the operating season, a few key staff people may be suitable for operating the business. In the off season, an organization may have no need for any salaried staff.
Finally, Cotterills (1996) research identified a number of personal issues as important factors that limit the commercial profitability and, in some cases, viability of ecotourism operations. The greatest personal challenge facing all small business operators is the risk of burnout. This risk is especially strong with ecotourism operators who may face the gruelling combination of a heavy work load, a lack of support systems, and a lack of financial resources to hire additional staff. Many ecotourism businesses offer their trips on weekends, yet they also must work a full Monday to Friday schedule to operate the office, prepare for trips, and be available to answer customer inquiries. As a result, operators may find themselves working seven day weeks for the entire operating season.
To some degree, these weaknesses and difficulties can be overcome by appropriate assistance through government agencies, industry associations, and vocational and/or university training programmes.
Accreditation has been pursued in part as a means to exclude businesses that do not follow ecotourism principles. The term ecotourism has become a positioning statement and a politically correct form of mass tourism. As such, virtually any type of tourism activity has claimed to offer an ecotourism experience. In Australia, bus tours that once were sold as day sightseeing trips from Sydney or Melbourne now are being marketed as ecotourism experiences because the tours stopped at wildlife parks. Yet there was no change in the tour itinerary nor the qualifications of interpretive staff. Locations outside Australia have followed similar paths (Wight 1993). Golf resorts in Hawaii became ecotourism resorts (Remington 1994). Singapore, possibly the most urban of all nations, promoted itself as an ecotourism destination because of its renowned zoo (STPB 1993). The Desaru resort being developed in Johor, Malaysia will have 12 hotels with 5,000 rooms and three golf courses, yet will promote ecotourism by setting aside 242 of the 1,600 hectares as a natural reserve (Manam 1996). South Pacific island nations like Fiji and Western Samoa began to promote themselves as ecotourism destinations, though three years earlier they had been positioned as mass tourism resort destinations.
The danger of abusing the ecotourism label comes not so much from large resorts using the term, because consumers presumably will be able to easily determine the type of experience they are purchasing. Rather, the confusion occurs when operators working in natural areas use the term while not complying with ecotourism principles. Such operators may be able to underprice those complying with the principles and may provide inferior experiences that, through negative word of mouth, can jeopardize demand for site and thus the viability of other businesses.
Accreditation is an option that enables consumers to identify those operators that comply with ecotourism principles. Australia is in the process of implementing such an accreditation programme, and more information can be found at http://lorenz.mur.csu.edu.au/ecotour/neap.html. The pluses and minuses of accreditation programmes, and the different types of such programmes, have been widely debated (for example, see Basiuk 1996 and Kumar 1996), and the experience of implementation in Australia and elsewhere can be used to guide future accreditation efforts.