ISSN 1108-8931


Year 5, Issue 48, May 2003

The ECOCLUB Interview
Index of Interviews

Richard Welford
Professor, Centre for Urban Planning and Environmental Management at the University of Hong Kong

Professor Richard Welford Professor Welford currently works within the corporate environmental governance programme specialising in the tourism and retailing sectors. He has written 12 books on environmental management and sustainable development. He has considerable experience in the tourism sector having been involved in destination management and eco-tourism development projects in Norway, Sweden, Vietnam and Costa Rica. He has also worked as a consultant to some of the leading companies worldwide including the Samsung Corporation and TXU. He is editor of two journals: Business Strategy and the Environment and Sustainable Development

Our first question, as our readers would expect is about SARS ! Noting that the epidemic seems to have spread from the floor of a Hong Kong hotel, through international travel, planes and air-conditioning systems, do you believe that in today's brave new world, the tourism sector needs to develop its own environmental, health & even security prevention & response mechanisms, locally & internationally? Or do we just leave it to officials with limited understanding of the sensitivities of tourism?

SARS started in the Guangdong Province of China and it seems for about three months was covered up by the authorities and those who did that were subsequently dismissed. SARS really hit the media when it spread to Hong Kong being carried by a man who had visited the infected area and then spread it unknowingly to people in the hotel in which he stayed. The situation now is coming under control rapidly and it is to the hard work of the medical staff here that we should all be grateful. It has been shown that SARS is quite difficult to catch and that it can be brought under control and I cannot help but think that much of the reporting in the media about SARS has been sensationalist and unduly pessimistic.

If there are lessons for travellers then it is to look at SARS in the broader context. Travellers can get sick and they need to be aware of health issues in the locations they are visiting and make sure they have the necessary preventative treatments. At all times hygiene is important since many of the bacteria that locals in a tourism destination will be immune to, tourists will not.

In the longer term I see no reason why there needs to be an increase in environmental health and safety measure in airplanes or at airports in normal times. This would only further delay the time spent travelling. However, I do think that more information could be given to travellers about their destinations. Whilst the world has concentrated on SARS we forget that malaria and dengue fever still pose a threat to the health of tourists in some regions. But tourists should be aware of passing buses since they are more likely to kill you than SARS.

You have just authored a comprehensive report on the potential for "Ecotourism in Hong Kong, Opportunities for Tourism Providers and Tourism Service Providers". What were the main conclusions, are HK residents and visitors ready for ecotourism? What do they understand as ecotourism, is it similar to what we say in our Members charter or is it rather just nature tourism? Do HK tourism providers view ecotourism as just an add-on opportunity, or as something deeper?

To me eco-tourism is tourism that whilst using nature as a resource also protects and where possible enhances that nature. Our questions in the survey were both about the demand for nature tourism, the importance of protecting the environment and the willingness to pay a premium for holidays that were consistent with eco-tourism, in that they are both environmentally and socially sensitive to local conditions.

The results of the survey find that there is a significant demand for eco-tourism both amongst tourists visiting Hong Kong and by the residents of Hong Kong themselves. The problem for the tourism industry in Hong Kong is that it has promoted Hong Kong as a city and has not marketed the rich diversity that Hong Kong has to offer. In fact only 17% of the Hong Kong region is urbanised and it contains 5% of all the bird species in the world, 80 species of reptile and over 2000 different flowering plants including 120 orchids. Tourists that recognise the diversity of Hong Kong stay longer, appreciate the diversity and spend more money. Those that only see Hong Kong as a city destination usually stay for less than three nights and never see the beauty of Hong Kong. We have advocated a policy of branding Hong Kong as a 'Region of Diversity' rather than a 'City of Life'.

But there is also a major opportunity for Hong Kong tour operators sending their customers on holiday. There is a demand for eco-tourism activities but few of the operators in Hong Kong offer such opportunities. There are lots of opportunities for new business development in this area but in many ways it is being prevented by the tourism authorities in Hong Kong who have been very complacent with respect to this tourism sector.

As far as intensity of feeling is concerned, I feel the best measure of seriousness with regard to eco-tourism is found in people's willingness to pay more for an holiday upholding the best principles of environmental and social responsibility. The fact is that our survey shows that both tourists visiting Hong Kong and residents of Hong Kong are willing to pay a premium of between 4% and 5% for good quality eco-tours.

Ecotourism is quite novel as a University Subject around the world. As an Academic can you evaluate its potential as a taught subject and even a degree in Hong Kong, China and South East Asia?

Eco-tourism as an undergraduate degree would be too narrow. Young people entering the industry need to have a good knowledge of all types of tourism, the ways different parts of the industry operate and a good grounding in business-related subjects such as marketing. As a postgraduate qualification, aimed at those already in the industry, eco-tourism has some potential but I would probably widen it still further to look at other aspects of tourism that are now growing and can be consistent with eco-toursim ideals. This includes education-based tourism, spiritual tourism, self-development tours, health based activities and the whole range of (for want of a better term) mind, body, spirit activities.

You are an Expert in Corporate Environmental Governance. Last month we interviewed an Expert in Environmental Governance in the European Union. In which way is corporate environmental governance in HK different or similar than european environmental governance.

In Hong Kong notions of environmental management, social responsibility and sustainable development are underdeveloped. The government of Hong Kong has been slow to implement best practice as measured by the activities of governments in Europe, for example. It has, to date, failed to implement a proper Local Agenda 21 policy that would be very workable in a relatively small region like ours. On the other hand, I see more promising signs coming out of the business world. Some of the leading companies in Hong Kong have policies and reports up to the standard of their European counterparts. But small and medium-sized companies (and there are thousands of these sourcing goods from China for export) are much less interested in environmental issues.

How central is Certification (e.g. ISO 14000), in terms of corporate environmental governance? Does it really 'maximise shareholder value' or is it rather a way of minimising risk from legal suits.

I am on record as not being a great enthusiast for systems-based approaches such as ISO14000. The problem with ISO14001 is that it is quite easy to achieve because companies set their own targets and priorities. Some do this in a very challenging way but others do it in a piecemeal fashion. ISO14001 has made a contribution but it also leads to a degree of inertia when companies get the standard and then take the view that they have "done their bit" and need not do much more. For some it adds to the corporate governance of a company and therefore enhances its image and reputation. For others it is a smokescreen and the ubiquitous 'greenwash'.

But the most limiting aspect of ISO14001 is that you draw the boundaries of the environmental analysis around the firm as an organisation. In a world of globalisation many large firms therefore appear to be not very environmentally damaging. This is because all the damage is happening down their supply chain, in factories in developing countries for example, where the environment is not on the agenda. A clothing retailer can therefore look very clean in an environmental sense because all the damage done in the processing and dying of textiles are done by different companies under contract. What we need to see in the future is companies being much stricter with their suppliers, forcing them to adopt high environmental standards, with good health and safety conditions and fair wages. Of course some of the leading brand names in the West are doing this now. But there are still more that do not. We need to move away from systems-based approaches and more towards seeing the product as the focus. We need proper management of products along the whole supply chain, better education of consumers regarding use and end-of-life product management and extended producer responsibility for environmental damage wherever it occurs.

Certification for Ecotourism? Is there a demand in South East Asia? Is there a supply?

This is an underdeveloped area and there are both pros and cons. Yes, it is nice to have a stamp of approval, certifying eco-tourism. That helps a company build its image and reputation and gives useful information to the consumer. But there are already a host of rather dubious labels around the place and tourists can get confused. I am also aware than many tourism operators are small scale and in locations such as Hong Kong subject to an unbelievable amount of unnecessary bureaucracy and interference by the industry associations. Whilst it is important to keep out the "cowboy" operators it is also important to cut the red tape and allow these eco-entrepreneurs to get on with their business. More standards and bureaucracy is not what these people want necessarily.

We know that China has created a huge infrastructure for its internal mass tourism. Is there any move / policies - public or private towards Ecotourism. China has invented many things, can it invent 'mass ecotourism' or ecotourism for the masses?

I suggest that once SARS is over people visit China before it is too late. The mass tourism development in China has not, to date, been done in an environmentally sensitive way and I fear that we are not learning the mistakes of other mass tourism destinations. There are already destinations such as Hainan Island where the tourism infrastructure is putting serious pressure on water systems and where sewerage treatment is failing. I fear that the impact of tourism in China is going to make some people very rich but the environment the worse off.

Outbound Travel from China (PR): Is there a sizeable demand for ecotourism, and to which destinations?

In the study of eco-tourism in Hong Kong we were pleasantly surprised by the interest in eco-tourism by Hong Kong residents and a willingness to pay a premium for it. Our research did not look at the residents of the rest of China. However, we should not automatically assume that they are not interested. More research needs to be done here I think.

Thank you very much.

Contact Details

Prof. Richard Welford
Hong Kong University
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