Mihee Kang on Ecotourism Opportunities and Challenges in South Korea

Published 07/07/2016
Mihee Kang, South Korea

Mihee Kang, South Korea

Ecotourism as opportunity for the sustainable development of tourism in South Korea and Asia generally is one key focus of this interview with Dr. Mihee Kang of South Korea. Mihee, a research professor at Seoul National University, also introduces us to her initiative the Playforest Cooperative, aimed at demonstrating how nature-based tourism can benefit all, especially local communities. 

Learn about:

  • When Mihee first heard about sustainability and tourism;
  • The biggest challenges of ecotourism;
  • How tourism can help to conserve a country’s nature and culture;
  • How the Playforest Cooperative promotes responsible tourism in South Korea;
  • Why the support of government officials is so important in Asia to advance sustainability, and how it can be won;
  • The current state of sustainable tourism research in Southeast Asia;
  • Which are the main challenges of the Asian Ecotourism Network to succeed.

Mihee, do you remember the first time you heard about sustainability in relation to tourism?

Yes, I first learned about sustainable tourism during my first year of graduation school in 1993. ‘Environmentally Sound and Sustained Development’ (ESSD) was a buzz word in Korea when I started to study ecotourism as a good strategy for sustainable tourism development. Most people would be surprised to learn that forests cover 64% of the total land area in South Korea.

As an ecotourism consultant, which of your recent projects did you find particularly challenging?

Most of my projects are related to ecotourism certification and ecotourism development. The biggest challenge is that most initiatives are managed by the central government, and local stakeholders depend so much on the government’s financial support. I am concerned that these initiatives cannot survive without this financial support. Consequently, there is a lack of business approach.

Another challenge is that there is little understanding of ecotourism and sustainable tourism criteria. Stakeholders have tried hard to conserve nature and benefit local communities, but they need to understand the requirements or detailed strategies to achieve sustainability of their activities.

But thankfully, the public’s understanding of ecotourism has increased, and there are now more local-based ecotourism enterprises.

What motivated you to co-found the Playforest Cooperative?

The Playforest Cooperative was established to show that conservation can benefit local communities through tourism. Play forest has also registered as a tour agency legally to be able to sell local tour products.

Many local communities and organizations are dedicated to conserving their forests, but they hardly get any profit from their conservation efforts. Some of them develop their own tour programs but face challenges accessing the tourism market.

I co-founded Playforest together with some colleagues to guide those communities and to demonstrate how to develop and sell sustainable forest-based tours. We just launched our website. 30% of our profits will go to conservation efforts. I hope it will teach people how sustainable tourism businesses work.

Mihee Kang, Sustainable Tourism Researcher

Compared to traditional tourism development, why is ecotourism especially important for Southeast Asian Nations?

Southeast Asian countries have rich nature and culture but the people there are relatively poor. Some countries have lots of tourists but I am not sure how much of the benefits go to local people to improve their lives.

To conserve nature and culture, tourism should be developed at a small scale by local people with active and meaningful local participation.

Many travel and tourism operators focus on short-term economic development, where adopting ecotourism can be a challenge.

You are a research professor at Seoul National University; in your view, is sustainable tourism research in Southeast Asia receiving sufficient attention?

I don’t think so. There are quite a number of projects, but they are not for academic research but rather for developing short term policies or strategies. I personally had no research funding from our government and most of my projects were related to policymaking or on-site ecotourism program development.

As a board member of the Asian Ecotourism Network (AEN) – what do you hope to achieve? Which challenges are the most urgent for AEN to address for more sustainable tourism in Asia?

I hope the stakeholders in Asia feel that it is easier to raise their voices and have a better network based on similar culture. AEN can function as a bridge among different stakeholders. There are many Asians who feel language barriers, especially with English, and AEN board members from all Asian countries can help them to deliver their voice to the international society.

The most challenging and urgent issue for AEN is to get enough funding for carrying out our goals, such as providing eLearning tools, training opportunities, and market data. And, we need to involve more Asian ecotourism leaders and organizations and establish strategic road maps for achieving our goals.

To support more sustainable tourism in Asia, AEN needs to provide Asian criteria that are suitable for the Asian natural and cultural environment. We are going to cooperate with the Global Sustainable Tourism Council to train Asian stakeholders about sustainable tourism and ecotourism, using the GSTC criteria.

Thank you Mihee.

Connect with Mihee Kang on LinkedIn.

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