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Nature-based Tourism in Emerging Asia

By miltongroup, August 27, 2020

In an increasingly interconnected world, we are expected to be conscious global citizens who appreciate nuance and resist viewing countries or continents through a narrow prism. But even amongst the monied professional classes, there is a tendency to generalise. It is perhaps human nature to seek simplicity from complexity, but it obscures insightful analysis. It afflicts emerging market investors who look purely to mass of population as qualification for investment. Likewise, hospitality groups who gravitate to proven destinations, often already on the wane, just at the point of entry. The degree to which 55 sovereign nations are neatly placed in the bucket of ‘Africa’ when discussing that continent, is one of the more egregious examples of this. But even in more familiar markets, there are lazy attempts to compartmentalise. Mongolia is minerals. Myanmar- the growth of a consumer class. This massively overlooks the potential for other sources of economic activity, not least nature-based tourism. Even in Kingdoms such as Jordan- synonymous with big ticket attractions like the ancient city of Petra- there is much more besides.

Mongolia has a land mass the size of Western Europe with a population of just over three million. Nearly half reside in its capital, Ulaanbaatar, with the remainder largely practising a nomadic, and pastoral existence in the countryside. It is known as much for Genghis Khan as for the minerals which lay under the ground. According to analysis from the Economist there may be as much as US$2 trillion of resources, from coal and copper, to uranium and gold. Strategically positioned next to China and Russia, a series of junior and senior miners have rushed to capitalise on relatively overlooked reserves, in close proximity to large, captive markets. Unsurprisingly this rush has had environmental consequences. Not simply in degradation of landscapes, but in encouraging mass rural-urban migration. With the economic draw of Ulaanbaatar- and climate change delivering harsh winters known as dzuds- more and more people reside in the capital. Frequently housed in tented accommodation, in the past this has left air quality levels below that of Beijing.

But head out of the city and it becomes apparent why Mongolia is sometimes called the ‘Land of the Eternal Blue Sky’. Vast steppes, extraordinary rock formations and desert as far as the eye can see.  This sort of wilderness is scarcely replicated globally, especially so close to one of the largest tourism growth markets in the world. Yet from Terelj National Park to the wild horses of Khustai, the Kazakh Eagle hunters of the Altai to Lake Khovsgol, accommodation is patchy. Notwithstanding seasonality- which regularly sees temperatures plummet below minus 30 degrees Celsius in Winter- there are scant options catered to luxury international travellers. Both culturally and in outdoor recreation, there is massive untapped potential, if placed next to more distant destinations in Africa or Latin America. Like elsewhere, the government and private stakeholders face challenge-not least the lack of private ownership of land. But just as mineral wealth presents opportunities, so too does tourism.

In Southeast Asia, Myanmar is a similarly striking case study. Frontier investors from Hong Kong and London, have flocked to the country since the end of direct rule by military junta. With a loose (and reasonable) expectation of the growth of a consumer economy, fortunes have been imagined, if not always realised. Yet amidst this fixation on security and financial services, real estate and pharmaceuticals, there has not necessarily been a cohesive plan developed for tourism. Myanmar’s commercial capital, Yangon, used to be known for some of the most expensive hotels (and real estate) in the region, but quality did not always correlate with price point. Elsewhere in the country, there has been an attempt to tap the backpacker market, tired of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, but luxury provision remains inadequate. There are ample historical reasons for this, however, juxtaposed against developing countries elsewhere in the world, there is scope for sensitive development. Lake Inle in Shan State has a surface area of nearly 45 square miles, and multiple endemic species. The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bagan dating from the 9th to 13th centuries, is an obvious circuit connection, alongside, Mandalay.

Countries like Myanmar or Mongolia, at the beginning of meaningful tourist expansion have the potential to avoid the mistakes of some parts of the world where injudicious planning has led to quick dollars and long-term destruction. Similarly, in Kingdoms like Jordan, careful control of existing tourist assets, enables public policy makers to carefully grow international clientele. Often associated with visiting Petra (sometimes simply by day trip from Jerusalem), attractions are manifold and suitable for low density, high value provision. From the Dead Sea to Wadi Rum, Jerash to Aqaba, Jordan’s stability and natural capital, point to the development of a best-in-class tourism sector. With an expectation of a change in the fundamentals of travel post coronavirus, there is much to be said for re-appraising destinations which already have strong connectivity, ecological and cultural wonders. Indeed, with some of the leading hotel groups in the world telling us of their expectation of slower travel, closer to home, it is reasonable they will alight on candidate countries and regions near tourist growth spots. This is not an exhortation to overlook destinations twelve hours or more from major populations with disposable wealth, but to realise the world is not quite as over developed as we might imagine. In our rush to pigeonhole countries by today’s most prized exports, we sometimes overlook their other attributes, many of them environmental and touristic.

Oliver Nicoll, Financial Strategist