Michael Kwee: Perspectives on Sustainable Tourism

MICHAEL KWEE, the Co-ordinating Director of Banyan Tree Global Foundation Limited, recently spoke at the World Engineers Summit, 2013 on ‘Climate Change – A Tourism Operator Approach.’   Through this written interview, we used the occasion to find out his perspectives on sustainable tourism. 

GCA: Eco Tourism means different things to different people. What does it mean to Banyan Tree?

MICHAEL KWEE:  To us, the term “eco-tourism” invokes near minimal footprint and bare bones style roughing it. It also implies tourism focused solely on environmental issues and catering to a somewhat more niche market. It also means “Caution!” to us.

While we are a tourism provider in pursuit of sustainability, we do not feel comfortable labeling ourselves or our Banyan Tree and Angsana resorts as eco-tourism offerings. While our aim is sustainability, we are conscientious of the need to balance social development needs with ecological concerns. In that sense, in addition to safeguarding and preserving the health of the local ecosystems where we operate, we simultaneously seek to use responsible tourism to help enhance the quality of lives of our guests via their experience of our resorts, our associates via dignified employment including a keen focus on developing career paths,  the members of the host communities and destinations via job creation and economic opportunities of tourism generated revenues,  our shareholders by providing sustainable long term returns on investment.

As such, we are much more comfortable with targeting the unreachable target of sustainable tourism.

GCA: What are some of your key sustainability initiatives across the Banyan Tree group?

MICHAEL KWEE: We have what we refer to as our three strategic pillars of sustainability (Increasing operational efficiency, protecting biodiversity, and developing local capacity), with each of these three pillars having its own signature group wide effort as well as location and destination specific initiatives based on local issues and concerns.

The signature initiatives we have are:

·         EarthCheck certification and benchmarking for both our operations and newly designed projects to support our effort to increase designed as well as operational efficiency. This allows us to measure, manage, and compare our results against the industry average and best practices as determined by leading science and in accordance with international standards.

·         Greening Communities supports our effort to drive awareness for climate change within communities where we operate by challenging each of our hotels to engage with students and community members in order to plant 2,000 new trees per year.

·         Seedlings is our effort to support long term prosperity for local students through one on one mentorship plus scholarship. Each hotel has been challenged to bring 3 new young people into the 6 year program every 2 years.

Equally important are our site specific initiatives where our hotels aim to fulfill our three strategic pillars in different ways depending on the local setting. Some examples of these are:

·         Our turtle projects in Maldives, Bintan, Phuket and Seychelles

·         Banyan Tree Maldives Marine Lab- focusing on marine conservation due to the Maldivian island settings

·         Banyan Tree Bintan Conservation Lab- focusing on land and marine conservation based on the coastal tropical rainforest setting of the resort

·         Seedlings Restaurant in Hoi An Vietnam- a social enterprise eatery whereby our Laguna Lang Co F&B teams provide skills, training, and career paths in hospitality to young people at risk of societal exclusion

·         Melipona Bee husbandry in Mexico- a social enterprise set up by our Banyan Tree Mayakoba team to provide income for local communities while protecting endangered bees and the traditional beekeeping practices of the region

GCA: How does Banyan Tree ensure that economic returns accrue to the local community, while safeguarding the local culture and environment?

MICHAEL KWEE: Our primary means of maximizing economic returns to host communities is to target becoming a part of the host location, as opposed to being a separate entity. We do this by hiring as much as possible from the local labor force (typically 90% of our hotels headcount is from the local community), purchasing as much as possible from local suppliers, and collaborating with local entrepreneurs to leverage our resort purchasing as business opportunities. While other hotels may see the downsides to this approach (such as increased cost of associate training and development) Banyan Tree sees these as part of our core ethos of sustainable development and ultimately in line with a triple bottom line approach.

GCA: What are the greatest barriers to Sustainable Tourism?

MICHAEL KWEE: Greenwash (the practice) and the scarlet letter of Greenwash are significant threats, but ultimately the biggest threat is the short sighted practice of chasing profits (as opposed to creating long term value).

Greenwash is by those tourism operators who are truly focused on sustainability become lost in the noise created by those who are only using sustainability as a marketing and public relations ploy. As potential customers become numb to sustainability messaging, especially if it is only hollow messaging, the risk is that those potential customers will disregard such campaigns or consider all such initiatives as soul-less ploys.

The scarlet letter of Greenwash, a consideration of any truly sustainable business today is the risk issue of being targeted by activists who don’t feel that organization is sustainable enough. By engaging in and targeting sustainability, organizations open themselves up to criticism and accusations of not achieving. The end result of this risk factor is companies being hesitant to share some of their great practices as efforts in working towards the continually moving target of sustainability.

Chasing profits- ultimately, our current financial approach tends to reward short term profitability as measured in quarterly earnings, rather than rewarding those who build enterprises to create value in the long term. Where this hits ecologically minded tourism is that the Finance Departments have massive incentive to reduce costs rather than to maximize investments. A good example is increased efficiency lighting, whereby costs of status quo monofilament and halogen lighting are lower than the costs of performance equivalent efficient lighting solutions (compact fluorescent bulbs, LED’s, etc). However the increased costs of CFLs and LEDs is handily outweighed by the reduced replacement (longer lasting) costs and operational (electricity) costs.

GCA: How have industry standards been evolving in this area, and what more needs to be done?

MICHAEL KWEE: Leaders within the industry have moved, and quite a ways. The best way to enable further improvements would be guests, asset owners, and regulators to better celebrate those leaders. Guests/customers voting with their wallets is the best way to incentivise those who are slower to embrace change and progress.

GCA: Is sustainable tourism at the moment only for elite travellers? Do you think it can be mainstreamed?

MICHAEL KWEE: Sustainable travel should not be only for elite travelers as sustainability impacts all of us. Likewise, the economic benefits (enhanced profitability, creating better value for guests, etc) are all things in which all levels of tourism will find benefits.That said, elite (high income) travelers demanding it is a great way to entice other practitioners into sustainability, even if they are just initially engaging in sustainability in order to target the potential high income customers and guests.

GCA: What suggestions would you give to students and professionals wanting to enter this area? What key skills or perspectives would they need?

Be passionate. When you care about things, you ask questions and don’t just accept some of the initial, low hanging excuses against sustainability. Passion is the key trait to enable shattering “business as usual” approaches, and that enables innovation.

Ultimately sustainability is about innovation and progress; it is about the permanent journey to a destination which will forever be on the horizon. As we achieve milestones in sustainability, those very milestones humble us by showing us what more is possible, and what more we can do. As such, sustainability is a virtuous cycle.


About the Interviewer:

Bhavani Prakash is the founder of Green Collar Asia, a thought-leadership portal on developments in the green jobs sector, where macro-level trends, as well as insights from green professionals and entrepreneurs are brought together.  Green Collar Asia is the media division of Worthy Earth, a media, recruitment and training firm.

Bhavani is a speaker, trainer and writer in the environment/sustainability sector. She has an MBA (PGDM)  from Indian Institute of Management Calcutta and an M.Sc in Financial Economics from University of London. She is also a certified EQ Coach with Six Seconds.org

Connect with Green Collar Asia on LinkedInFacebook and Twitter.  Bhavani Prakash may be contacted via bp[at]greencollarasia.com or through LinkedIn

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