Every time I attend events such as the Mekong Tourism Forum, I end up with two main thoughts.
I wish I had more time to travel to experience all the wonderful things I learnt about and how does one, as a traveller, find all these products in the crowded, cluttered, confusing web?
From zip lining, tiger spotting and communing with gibbons in Laos, to temple safaris in Cambodia and sleeping in Tibetan-style tents in Yunnan, these are the products that make the Mekong region such a tourism jewel – but unless you are a traveller with very specific interests, and you go searching for them, how do you find these products?
Often, they are created by people who are passionate about authenticity and committed to conservation but don’t have the budgets to stand out in the crowded marketplace and they also don’t have the ability to scale – nor do they necessarily want to.
As Jef Reumaux who founded The Gibbon Experience in Bokeo, Northern Laos, says proudly: “We have no potential to be replicated.”
[In The Gibbon Experience, customers sleep in tree houses 40 metres high and there’s a network of cable bridges to help scout the canopy for the gibbons whose distinct calls are heard throughout the forest every morning]
The theory is that the internet is able to help guys in the Long Tail reach customers they wouldn’t normally be able to – but what if the Long Tail is extremely long and awesomely big as it is in tourism, where the heartbeat and lifeblood of the industry is often not in the big brands in the big cities but in the small parts that make the whole?
Talking to the more experienced operators in the Mekong, there is the acknowledgement that they know how to create authentic experiences to delight customers – the missing piece of the puzzle is often how to get these customers in the first place.
In a region where the mix of travellers is also changing – the share of arrivals from the ASEAN region to the Greater Mekong Subregion has grown from 24% to 56% in the last eight years – it’s become even more critical for these operators to seek out new segments of customers that will continue to want to pay for these experiences.
Social media is cited as one of the new tools that could help these small operators.
Passionate travellers tend to be passionate about sharing as well although there may be some customers who don’t wish to share because it’s getting harder and harder to find places where you can get away from the mainstream.
Jia Liming of Wild China, acknowledged as China’s leading cultural and sustainable tour operator, says her company is directing more efforts towards its website and social media to spread the company’s message.
The website has a TripAdvisor recommendation and tools by which customers can connect with through Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and Twitter.
At Green Discovery Laos, managing director Vianney Catteau says walk-in sales through its seven offices in Laos account for 70% of its business but 15% comes through the internet, an increasingly important channel for the company.
It’s a channel small operators know is their future. But for as long as they are reliant on tour operators, their margins will always be restricted.
At the other end of the value chain are the traditional tour operators whose margins are being squeezed on all fronts and who may see the potential to own such Long Tail supply in destinations.
The challenge is in aggregration, physically and virtually. Several Asian operators have tried to combine forces under alliances and marketing partnerships – they have had limited success. The intent may be noble but the challenge is always human – often these companies are run by independent-minded entrepreneurs who find it hard to see a greater purpose beyond their own ego.
Then there are companies who have tried to do it on their own – Asian Oasis in Thailand, for example, builds, owns and operates its own products under one brand. But again, hard to scale and difficult to bring in like-minded players who may not want to go under another company’s brand, especially if they see it as a competitor.
Then there’s the thought that perhaps they could all band together and come under an Expedia-like umbrella and then I say, perish the thought.
Unlike books that can all be bought under Amazon, the idea somehow doesn’t work as well in tourism – surely, unique, authentic experiences cannot be commoditised?
And then I wonder if a Worldhotels-like organisation can exist for unique, independent hotels, why not for these small adventure and ecotourism operators?
And again, I abandon the thought because as Reumaux of The Gibbon Experience says, when asked to share the secrets of his project’s success:
“Stay free-minded and passionate. Postpone marketing when possible. Respect local culture. Renounce excessive conformism. Question the industry’s mainstreams. Enforce your dreams.”
Yes, perhaps the answer to finding the Long Tail in travel is allowing it to swing free and wild as with the gibbons, and only those who seek shall find.
NB: The Bokeo Nature Reserve consists of 123,000 hectares of mix-deciduous forest in a mountainous terrain ranging from 500m to 1500m in elevation.
It was established by the Lao Forestry Authorities and Animo, the company that runs The Gibbon Experience, with a practical approach and no external funds.
In 2004, Animo was given a government mandate to protect this rich asset of Northern Laos that borders the Nam Ha Protected Area.