Ordinary…still extraordinary trip on the Earth

My name is Masaru Takayama.
The work I do focuses mainly on expanding ecotours and ecotourism to every part of the world.
I place value on finding models for tourism that don’t just give visitors a generalized view of the place they’re visiting, but also allow them to get closer to communities and ensure that everyone involved benefits.
It’s critically important that we think about this word “ecotour,” which is used all the time, and ask ourselves what a real ecotour is.
I believe we must keep pace with the global tourism industry while at the same time meeting international standards as we expand.

A global ecotourism network is indispensable in reaching this goal.
As vice president of the International Tourism Society(TIES), I’ve had the opportunity to meet many of the people involved in this network of leaders from countries around the world who are trying to develop ecotourism.
For example, there is a global travel and tourism non-profit organization called the WTTC (World Travel and Tourism Council http://www.wttc.org) that confers the “Tourism for Tomorrow” award.
This organization recognizes examples of sustainable tourism on the global level and honors them with awards.
As a site evaluator for the WTTC, I go out and assess the people who are practicing the most sustainable tourism in the world.
I have the rare opportunity to observe these industry leaders in person.
I also get calls from people in many different countries who want me to help them expand ecotourism.
Visiting these sites is one of my primary jobs.

- What is the main difference between “ecotourism” and “sustainable tourism”?
These two terms are used a lot these days.

Sustainable tourism refers to any tourism with a link to sustainability.
For example, even if the organization is right in the middle of Tokyo, if it has a “green” or “ecological” element, then that’s sustainable tourism.
Even if it’s in a high-rise building, if they practice energy conservation or have an organic café and they are attracting customers through a range of activities, that can be considered sustainable tourism.
Under that umbrella, ecotourism refers to a situation where there’s a natural environment nearby that needs to be protected.
But just being close to nature is not enough.
The activities need to be connected to nature conservation, and a portion of the money from tourism also needs to go toward activities that protect nature.
Plus, you need to have guides or other staff who can and do explain that connection to guests.
These are the basic requirements for correctly calling something ecotourism or an ecotour.
Without that sustainability element – for instance, if you have a nature tour that shows visitors the natural environment but does nothing to help protect it – then you shouldn’t call that an ecotour.
You can think of ecotourism as a type of sustainable tourism that includes nature and acts in harmony with the human communities living there.

- So it’s possible to call something right in the middle of Tokyo “sustainable tourism.”
By the way, I’ve heard that a set of quality indicators for ecotourism is being developed.
When did that effort begin, and what is its current status?

The eco-label system started about 15 years ago in Europe.
For a while, there were a whole bunch of eco-labels in Europe.
These were similar to the star system for hotels, only in this case it would be “three leaves” or “five leaves” or something like that.
Places that were making legitimate environmental efforts were able to get certified quite easily,
but there were also some sham organizations that would give out the labels in exchange for payment.
Because of this proliferation of certification systems, consumers didn’t know which to rely on.

On top of that, some places that were genuinely working to improve their management practices were not getting certified.
The United Nations (UN) recognized that this was a bad situation and started to take some measures in response.
First, they looked at how many certification systems existed.
I heard they found more than 300 different systems around the world.
Asia didn’t have too many, but in any case what happened was that the certification systems themselves had to be certified.
The first step in the UN being able to say “this is a solid certification system” or “this system does not meet basic standards” was to create a global standard that laid out the minimum requirements for using the term “sustainable tourism.”

Those standards are in the process of being expanded, but, for example, if you have an “experiential nature tour,” that tour is going to be different at each company.
So, standards for tour operators were created. Next, a similar set of standards for hotels were created.
Then, two years ago the idea emerged to certify entire destinations, and two types of global standards were created for that.
Right now the UN is getting behind those and starting to promote them around the world.

- How many certification systems has the UN approved so far?

I think there are a little under 30 worldwide.
There are actually several different levels of approval.
In Japan and the rest of Asia, the Ecolodge Association, where I serve as representative director, is the only association whose certification is accepted by the UN.
We have a checklist of 148 requirements for ecolodges, and those include all of the global standards.
Many of the places that have received the UN’s stamp of approval are in Europe.
Right now, efforts are focused mostly on spreading this minimum standard.

- My impression is that in places like Costa Rica and other parts of Central America,
government policy incorporates environmentalism, and a lot of ecolodges exist.
Do you think that in Central and South America, where you also find the Amazon, there is a high level of environmental awareness, and countries see themselves as “environmental nations” that value and protect nature?

Yes, I think so.
My entry into this world was through a trip to Costa Rica.
That was in the 1990s. Costa Rica is a small country, about the size of Shikoku and Kyushu combined.
It has a population of a bit less than five million people and no military.
I think they thought hard about what kind of country they wanted to be and decided to get rid of the military and put that money toward education instead.

I think the movement to promote ecotourism arose not out of a desire to create something new through nature conservation, but rather to build up the country using the resources at hand.
As a result of the re-greening efforts, a quarter of the land area had been protected as national parks by the time I went there, and that’s increased by another 1% or 2% since then.
So they are actually putting the money towards conservation.
Also, I think it was seven or eight years ago that Nature Air, the world’s first carbon-neutral airline company, was founded, and that was also in Costa Rica. Costa Rica is blessed with a very rich environment.

 - Would you mind talking a little more about how you got into the ecotourism industry through your trip to Costa Rica?

Yes. I lived in the United States during high school and university, and from there, both Central and South America are quite close.
It’s similar to someone in Japan going to Southeast Asia.
I knew people from Mexico and other parts of Central and South America, so I felt a pretty strong sense of affinity.
It was a bit expensive for me to go as a university student, but one day after I’d returned to Japan, a friend and I were talking about how we’d like to go scuba diving, and we figured if we were going to do it, we should go to Costa Rica for it.
After five days or so of diving in the ocean, I started feeling like my brain needed at least a day to dry out, so we decided to go on a jungle tour that the people at the diving shop had recommended.
A high-school-aged kid gave us the tour in English, and the first thing they did was talk about how the jungle functions, how much we benefit from it, and how they live together with the forest.
The student also took us to see the village hospital and school, and we learned that they had been built using money earned from tourism.

I thought about what that actually meant, and I realized that the money we paid for our tour went directly to the village.
In the past, the villagers had cut trees from the forests and sold them as a form of one-directional commerce, but after the introduction of tourism they were able to stop cutting the trees and make money by telling visitors about the wild animals they had grown up with.
Everyone was full of vitality and life.
I was thinking to myself, “so this kind of fascinating tour exists! What is this?” It was the 90s, and what I was experiencing was an ecotour.

I was interested in the system, so when I came back to Japan I looked into it, and it turned out that the word “ecotourism” was just starting to be used in Japan.
It was really the pioneer era.
That was my first encounter with ecotourism in Costa Rica, and it seemed so interesting that after returning to Japan I felt like I wanted to travel a bit more.
So, I think it was about three months later, I went to Costa Rica again.
I met all sorts of people, and when I met with people from the ecotourism association CANAECO, my life changed. I ended up staying in Costa Rica for about a year and a half.
You could say that my start in ecotourism was with the Costa Rica model.
Because my work grew out of seeing those programs firsthand and hearing people talk and being deeply moved, I think I have a different approach than if I had learned about it through classes at university or reading books.

- I had been thinking about whether there was any form of tourism that doesn’t take a toll on the earth, and I started to look into that question.
By chance I happened to discover TIES (The International Ecotourism Society https://ecotourism.org) and I was surprised to see a Japanese person—you—on the board. That was how I ended up contacting you.

I’ve been on the TIES board for about eight years.
I used to be a member of the organization. One day, the former president happened to be in Tokyo. Her name is Martha Honey, and she’s the well-known author of many books on ecotourism.
I had the chance to meet her in Tokyo. At that time, I’d already started up the Ecolodge Association.
One of the members of the TIES board was an architect specializing in ecolodges who had founded the Kenya Ecolodge Association. That was how I got connected with them.

Both at that time and today, TIES was probably the largest ecotourism organization in the world, and the one with the longest history.
As I talked with them, it became clear that we were all aiming for the same thing, despite differences in language and culture.
They asked me directly if I’d like to be on the board.
The fact that the president happened to be in Tokyo and we were able to meet played a big role in that.

- You’re currently running a company called Spirit of Japan Travel.
Can you tell me more about the company?

The company I run in Tokyo is a “type-two travel agency” (type-two travel agencies are permitted to handle all travel arrangements aside from package tours outside Japan).
We have an English name, but our top goal is to share the spirit of Japan with visitors from other countries.
Essentially, we are a travel agency for foreigners.
This is our seventh year of operation. Many of the package tours targeted at foreign visitors are very similar, with things like visits to hot springs or Mt. Fuji, or if it’s Tokyo, walking around the Asakusa district.
We started out with a desire to go beyond that, to show visitors the real Japan.

Our countryside tour isn’t just a tour of the countryside.
As much as possible, we try to have people use trains and public transportation and interact with locals as if they were visiting distant members of their own family.
We’re not offering “once in a lifetime experiences,” but, rather, small group tours that give people the kind of experiences they will want to come back for again and again.
Because our tours aren’t geared toward sight-seeing, there aren’t any people working in the tourism industry in the places we bring people to.
The central characters on our tours are farmers, fishermen—that kind of person.
For accommodations, we’ll rent out a whole building, or find a place you can only get in touch with by telephone, the sort of inns that only real travel buffs know about. We become friends with the proprietors and then exchange ideas for how to make their inn more sustainable.
We run tours in locations from Hokkaido to Okinawa, but to places that aren’t listed in major guidebooks. We started out by offering these special tours in English, but we’ve been fortunate enough that we’re now expanding to six languages so that as many people as possible can enjoy our tours.

- Can you tell me about the movement to bring together ecotourism programs across Asia?

Asian countries share many cultural elements.
There are also easily noticeable differences, such as whether chopsticks are used, but all throughout Asia, from Indonesia to Korea to Cambodia to Laos, people are promoting ecotourism.
Even though we see one another often at conferences and places like that (and a network does exist) up till now TIES has been able to facilitate information exchange at a surface level only.
We’re always meeting, which could be because that’s enough for people, or because we’re all overwhelmed with our individual projects, or because no one has suggested something different.
Now, as ecotourism is starting to rally around global standards, we’re inviting countries not just to carry out projects within their own borders, but also to share information about what is actually going on across Asia.
The ultimate goal is to make Asia into a better destination that we can sell to the world.
We can do this by creating opportunities for people to meet face-to-face and talk about the projects they’re working on and what their needs and challenges are.
That effort will launch at the Asia Pacific Ecotourism Conference, which takes place this October 16 through 18 (2014) in Borneo, Malaysia. Malaysia’s president is taking part.
In parallel to that conference, ecotourism leaders from throughout Asia will gather in order to start building stronger relationships.

- You’ll be attending that conference as well, won’t you?
Can you tell us what a “beautiful world” means to you?

A beautiful world.
Since I’ve visited so many places, I’m often asked which country is the most beautiful, or what my travel recommendations are, but I believe many types of beauty exist.
The desert is beautiful, but so are the mountains and the ocean. In the end, it’s hard to rank them.

If you ask me where I personally feel beauty, I’d have to say it’s in people.
It’s culture and customs.
It’s not just going to a place, it’s what you eat, what you talk about, the experience of fishing or planting rice together.
It’s about sharing time with the people who live there through those experiences, and laughing together.
When you have these experiences and shared realities, a place becomes more beautiful.

- What can we do so that more people experience that kind of beauty?
Please share any message about that with us.

I think the simplest and most important thing is this:
in order to bring in tourists, people feel the need to change the resources they already have at hand.
Contrary to what they think, though, this is a misguided effort.
They don’t have to try so hard (laughs)!
The village ladies don’t need to put on lipstick.
In my opinion, it’s okay for them to come out in their workpants and serve an everyday meal.
Tourism shouldn’t be such a difficult thing.
When they draw a line between tourism and everyday life, if they draw it too far on the tourism side, then they end up building parking lots and not wearing their ordinary clothes—in other words, overextending themselves.
They’re adapting themselves to tourism for the masses.
That’s fine for people who visit as tourists, but from the perspective of a traveler, it’s boring.
So they should draw the line further toward the everyday side of things, and visitors who come as sightseers can enjoy not being so close to the “tourism line.”
That is the true pleasure of travel.
So my message is, “you don’t need to try so hard.”

- Finally, I’d like you to explain the meaning of your company’s name, “Spirit of Japan Travel.”

I think the spirit of Japan and the Japanese sensibility, including Zen, is unique within the world.
For that reason, I try to show visitors the Japanese spirit as it is, without dressing it up or creating something that’s not there.
I value the balance between not adding anything and not subtracting anything.
Rather than growth through change, I see the value in putting effort toward not changing.
The company’s name embodies my wish for people to experience that through us.

- “Real travel, unreal experiences.”
The degree to which tour organizers grasp the appeal of that concept really changes the quality of the trip, doesn’t it?

Gaining the cooperation of the people in our destination communities takes time.
It takes us about three years to establish one destination.
We do tours year-round, so in order to get a sense of the yearly cycle of seasonal foods and things like that, we have to visit every three months for a year.
After that, we keep going back again and again to develop the program.
Sometimes, we have to drink with the locals, and you’ll have some stubborn local guy who gets totally drunk and finally says, “Yes! Let’s do it!” And it’s like, why couldn’t you have said that to start with! (Laughs)
But to see communities invigorated through travel, it’s hard, but it’s really fun work.

- Thank you very much! (Interviewer: Eriko Kaniwa)
Masaru Takayama
Spirit of Japan Travel, Director
Masaru Takayama’s passion for ecotourism and ecolodges started in Costa Rica in the 90s when he was just a nature-loving traveler.
Since then he founded the first ecolodge association in the world, Japan Ecolodge Association (ECOLA), to promote the concept of ecotourism and ecolodge uniting responsible tourism and green buildings in Japan.
The environmentally-friendly accommodations standard developed by ECOLA is the first in Asia recognized by Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) .
Working as a global community-based ecotourism consultant, ecolodge advisor, and operating a coummunity-based ecoluxury tour operator ‘Spirit of Japan Travel’ in Kyoto, he also serves a number of positions in the organizations both home and abroad pertinent to eco and sustainable tourism as well as protected areas i.e. WTTC, UNEP, TIES. His passion has now led to create Asian Ecotourism Network (AEN) with a head office in Bangkok applying his knowledge and experience gained over years in the international ecotourism arena.

Masaru is supportive of the project LUXUREARTH by heart.
Traveling to a new destination is all about the connection using five or even six senses with the Earth and the communities that shape the land.
Using Spirit of Japan Travel as a medium, he demonstrates that a responsible tour operator can help bring tangible benefits to the communities for conservation of nature, recovery from natural disasters, and improvement on their well-being.