- Hi Mallika! The tables have turned! You do a lot of interviewing, now it’s time for someone to interview you! To start things off, tell us a little bit about your road to Gaia Discovery.
It sure has! Thank you for this opportunity to tell my story. I spent the initial years of my career in publishing and public relations working in both the private and public sectors. At that time, while raising my two children, I was in the telecommunications and IT industry. After more than a decade, tired of being a corporate slave, I switched to being a freelance writer with a number of travel and lifestyle publications. As I traveled to write, I saw that development for tourism often took its toll on the environment and society. However few publications at that time wanted that kind of story. The prettier the scenery, the better the story it seemed. I was troubled. When the awareness of climate change was at its peak, with Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth documentary released, I felt concerned and asked myself what my response should be to environmental issues. It dawned on me that I could start a publication that focused on sustainable tourism and living, and decided to keep it online so as to avoid using paper material. That’s how Gaia Discovery began, and that was in 2008. This interview is timely as we approach our tenth anniversary and have a good following from readers worldwide.
- Where does the name Gaia come from? What inspired it?
My features editor Jeremy Torr suggested the name Gaia when we were thinking of a name for the online publication. I decided to research into the name, and was rather taken in after reading Dr. James Lovelock’s The Revenge of Gaia where he explained the Gaia Hypothesis. In his book he warned how the delicate balance of nature within the synergistic and self-regulating Earth could be upset if any of the major organic or inorganic elements was out of sorts with the other. His friend and author William Golding who wrote Lord of the Flies was the one to suggest to James Lovelock that he could name his hypothesis after Gaia, the Greek Goddess of Earth. To most people today, Gaia is understood as simply Mother Earth. Gaia Discovery’s name was inspired by this theory as the editorial focuses on conserving the balance of nature and sustainable development.
- What is your favourite part about working with Gaia Discovery?
Telling a good story and from the heart. I love to come across genuine people with extraordinary accomplishments. I like giving such people exposure so that others can read about what they do so as to learn or be inspired. Gaia Discovery has a People section where we have featured hoteliers, tour operators, scientists, environmentalists and so on. We like to break new stories under the Planet section where we cover a range of environmental topics from energy, water, waste, ecology to reforestation. In featuring tourism, we review responsibly run resorts and destinations under Places section. Nothing thrills me more than meeting an operator who is passionate about sustainability and builds a memorable eco-resort or boosts the livelihoods of communities against all odds. So it is in meeting the unexpected that I cherish about the job.
- Do you have any areas within sustainable tourism that you are particularly excited about? If so, what are they and why?
I like to see ground up action in implementing sustainability. These can be individuals taking it upon themselves to find or provide solutions to the many environmental problems we see in tourism, travel and food and beverage industry. One good example is in Bali where like-minded businesses are brought together by the individual Alex Tsuk and being mobilized to introduce concrete solutions. I had just written about this. This is the BookGreener community of businesses mostly in Ubud of Bali where they get together monthly to discuss issues, share information, lend a hand, help train each other’s staff in permaculture, for instance, and be part of the critical waste management solution on the island by having refillable water stations at their hotels, resorts or restaurants. No government organization is part of this—just ordinary people taking action themselves and most of them are businesses that are potentially competitors too.
- How do you hope to pass this excitement along to the consumer?
As far as Gaia Discovery goes, we try to create compelling stories with images and videos to follow. That way I hope readers get excited and are persuaded to alter their mindset or change their behavior. Another way is to reach out to our readers with the hope of engaging them and connecting them with sustainable businesses. Often this is done through reader promotions and contests. Having said that, it is often in the doing, seeing and being there that one can truly experience impactful journeys. So my hope is that readers will travel to the places they read about in Gaia Discovery and support the eco-sensitive businesses that we feature.
- In your opinion, what are some of the challenges we face in getting the consumer to be more responsible? What are the gaps that need to be filled?
There needs to be some holding back on social media messaging during travel as there is just too much of that, which makes the subject appear superficial, losing conservation messages as photos get ‘liked’ and re-posted. Instagrammers, for instance, have brought ruin to pristine areas of nature and introduced greater human traffic to sensitive or age-old places. Some examples are the 15th century ruins of Machu Picchu (a whopping 1.2 million people visited this UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014!), The Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen (vandalism struck twice), Tasmania’s Wilderness World Heritage Areas (age old mossy pathways trodden out). How about retaining images in the head rather than photographing or taking videos all the time? Nature needs to be experienced and understood, not just be photographed.
I think more can be done to educate tourists on responsible actions and a good opportunity for businesses to do so is to post information on their website as well as to send an email to their customers in the form of an advisory on what is expected of them in visiting a national park, historical monument or culturally-sensitive village.
There is also a need for travelers to spread themselves out and in different seasons so as to lessen the load on highly visited places. This is partly the job of the tourism authority to manage numbers for safer carrying capacity.
Responsible travelers should also remember that visiting a place should really be a two-way experience in terms of information exchange. As much as travelers wish to gain knowledge of the place they visit, they could also share with the proprietor or guide or hosts what they experience back home or elsewhere.
Finally, waste. Tourists should keep their impact to the minimum and that includes avoiding buying items that have lots of packaging and single use plastics.
- What do you see as some of the trends for sustainable tourism in 2018?
More community-based tourism are springing up that strive to be authentic in nature and meaningful in facilitating deeper understanding of foreign cultures often with interactive activities (cooking, basic gardening, starting a fire in the jungle as survival skill) and such examples can be found in Lupa Masa of Sabah and SaveAGram homestays in the villages of India. In some of these cases, some investment goes into developing guest houses and basic infrastructure to cater to tourism activities.
I also see Gen Y stepping forward as savvy tour operators who organise refreshing yet low impact tours that revolve around nature discovery or wildlife encounter or adventure holidays underpinned by responsible tourism ethos such as Wise Steps Travel in Indonesia. Also, young lodge or resort owners tie in spiritual activities to appeal to the younger or alternative traveler that seeks quieter, nature-oriented or spiritual stays. Often this is tied to natural and healing programmes that go with freshly harvested and chemical free produce that are cooked and served in the lodge. This appeals to the Gen Y travelers, health conscious tourists and single female travelers—and there are a lot of them.
The third trend I see is this: more and more destination managers are taking matters into their hands such as over crowding to reverse tourism’ negative impacts on their historical buildings, heritage areas and natural attractions. Euromonitor projects that by 2020 the top 20 visited countries will add an additional 121 million inbound visitor arrivals to the 992 million arrivals in 2016. Growth is also forecasted; according to the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), international tourist arrivals will grow 3.3 percent a year from 2010 to 2030 to more than 1.8 billion arrivals. The report also highlighted that tourism tends to be uneven within countries—some places are packed while others could do with some tourism attention. In 2016 and 2017, cities (e.g. Ljubljana City of Slovenia), regions (Region Västerbotten, Northern Sweden and Mekong region) and states (e.g. Indonesia, Kerala of India, Thailand) have put in place strategies and guidelines for greater sustainability, prepare businesses for better tourism management and to spread out tourism revenues to other areas. Indonesia is serious on improving its tourism image through capacity building in a number of its states by putting in place Sustainable Tourism Destination Standards recognized by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council. So we are seeing increasing commitment in the drive towards sustainability not just at the business level but also at the destination level. This will continue in the next decade as tourism continues to grow exponentially thanks to better (and cheaper) transport, greater connectivity, higher affluence and increasing desire to see new places.
- What tips do you have for our readers to live a more eco lifestyle?
To readers I say, plan your travel to keep waste generation as low as possible when you pack your luggage. It may not be completely possible to travel as a zero waste tourist, but it can be close if you put your mind to it. Having traveled a lot, I realize that to be successful in minimizing waste on the go, some prior planning and packing is required: plan where to stay such as resorts that promote ecological practices and sound waste management; pack an eco-bag within your suitcase that contains the following: a reusable drinking water container, a sealable mug for coffee takeaways, plate or bowl, fork, spoon, knife, chopsticks (utensils made out of bamboo for instance), handkerchiefs/hand towels, biodegradable bags (try PicknBin that also has wet wipes) for non-recyclable waste disposal, reusable shopping bag and biodegradable soap. Pack another flat reusable bag to contain your rubbish especially recyclable items when you travel to areas that do not have recycling facilities. These bags can then go into the suitcase and be transported to the nearest recycle bin when you come across it. I made a video of myself retaining plastic water bottles after attending Sarawak’s iconic Rainforest World Music Festival where I demonstrated how they can be flattened and packed away in a suitcase. You can watch it here.
I also think that responsible travelers should pose questions about waste management to hotel staff and local grocers to get a good idea of what happens to rubbish and to get discussions going. It only takes a spark to get the fire going and consumers have the power to effect change by vocalising their wants and concerns. Leave feedback and write letters if you come across unsustainable practices.