If you’re only in the tourism business for the money, then why would you continue? This is the fundamental question on the mind of Willem Niemeijer, CEO of YAANA Ventures—an owner, partner and operator of entrepreneurial travel and hospitality ventures in Asia. Willem believes that those brands with a higher purpose are the ones that will come through this, because they have a reason beyond financial gain to persevere despite the challenges.
Referencing his own business, which includes a DMC and eco lodges, he says they don’t expect to make money for two years. But they can’t wait to get back to business because they do so much more than just provide a facility for guests—they help to prevent deforestation, protect the jungle and feed local families.
David Keen 0:10
Hi, this is David Keen. At QUO, we’ve worked for the last 20 years with many of the world’s best-known travel brands. During this unprecedented global crisis, our world of travel has changed, possibly irreversibly. This series will see us speak with many global leaders to understand how they see the future of travel.
Willem Niemeijer, CEO and founder of YAANA Ventures and Khiri Travel and different eco lodges in South East Asia. Welcome Willem to our offices, and welcome to The Future of Travel.
Willem Niemeijer 0:59
David Keen 1:00
It’s our honour. Catherine Monthienvichienchai, as always, is sitting next to me. It’s our honor to have you on our podcast. Willem, is travel fundamentally… are the desires of the consumers fundamentally going to change as a function of the virus, in what they do?
Willem Niemeijer 1:26
Initially it will. There has been so much attention given to the virus and how it spreads, or how it possibly can spread, that initially people will want to avoid mass… they want to avoid the situations in which they are pressed together in a particular enclosed space, outside or inside, whatever that will feel like. That will be filled in automatically because it will take some time for tourism to rebound.
So it’s not like there will be a big mass of people in places to start with anyways. I think overall, people like to find some quiet places and stay away from massive attractions. That’s my sense of where this is going. Now, this is interestingly already what we’ve seen happening in the last couple of years, where people are moving away from mass places and going to more quiet places, more specific places. So it works with what probably was already a trend, but for all different reasons.
David Keen 2:55
Right. I’m talking just now about Siem Reap, about Cambodia and about Angkor. We were both… like the old people that we are, lamenting the days in the early 90s when we went to Angkor and I had Bayon to myself and you could cycle around or motorbike or moped around and there was nobody else there. All the temples were there for you to see. There were still guns going off in the jungle and smoke coming out. It’s not like that anymore. Today Siem Reap is probably a ghost town. I mean, none of us have been there, but we were guessing it’s a ghost town. How much will that go back to where it was? And is it just a matter of time?
Willem Niemeijer 3:46
Well, also interestingly, the last two years or so, Cambodia overall has suffered a bit. The arrivals in Cambodia have suffered a bit, and that must have to do with the quality of the experience. Because everybody goes to Angkor. 100% of tourists to Cambodia will go to Angkor. They may go to other places as well. But Angkor itself, it’s not a good experience anymore. It’s not managed. I can’t say that [unclear]. It’s just basically not managed.
David Keen 4:22
Excuse me for interrupting you, but we were also talking about Venice. You were saying you’d love to go to Venice now because there’s nobody there.
Willem Niemeijer 4:28
I think this is the interesting part right now. It’s certainly going to be the message that we are spreading.
The moment that you can travel, travel. This is the moment that you can go… it doesn’t really matter where you want to go, whether it’s Machu Picchu or Venice or Angkor. Wherever it may be, you will be with a very few people. And that will last not very long. Because that will build on itself. People would say like, oh, then I’m traveling as well and obviously that itself could immediately bring us back to mass tourism. Although immediately, it will probably take a while, but I would guess shorter than we think it will take, for that particular reason.
Catherine Monthienvichienchai 5:11
And who will be those first travelers, those first people out of the blocks to go on a plane and go to Venice before the crowds return?
Willem Niemeijer 5:18
They’ve already booked! We have bookings for the remainder of the year, as early on as July. In a couple of weeks time people are still booked. So I think there are people who just wanted to travel anyway.
And for whatever reason, I think perhaps that’s… well, we’ve talked about that here in Bangkok going about our business. We’re not afraid, we’re just living our lives. Maybe a little bit perturbed that you know, you can’t go to your place. We can have a drink with our meal again now but other than that, it’s just business as usual. So I think for a lot of people, maybe it will be like today, we’ll want to travel anyway. So who is it going to be? I think the people that already have booked. The people that are more adventurous. I think long-haul travelers, by and large, are the ones that have read into their destination and why they want to travel.
There may be short-haul travelers or weekend travelers. I’m a true believer in pent-up interest. I’m a realist. I know it’s not going to be super fast and a V-shaped kind of recovery right away. It will take some time, but I’m an optimist and travel will resume fairly quickly as we have seen it in the past.
David Keen 6:47
To Catherine’s point, will it be the adventurers? Will it be a similar typology of guest or traveler that is going to be the first one on the boat or the first one on the plane—probably not on the boat—but the first one on the plane, or on the train, going in and then the same followers? And will the followers be looking for the same type of experiences they were having before the virus?
Willem Niemeijer 7:21
Not right out of the gate. Not right away. I think people will want to come here to Asia, very much for the cultural and environmental… different biodiversity from maybe Europeans or Americans, who probably will start much later with travel.
[Unclear] Europeans looking for different biodiversity—interest in jungle and karsts landscapes. Or very interested in cultural sites, and not in big mass. It’s going to be interesting to see if people are willing to really adhere to very strict regulations in sites such as The Grand Palace, where it will be extremely well-regulated. That will probably take some of the spontaneousness out of the experience. It would be interesting to see if people are going to say, you know what, we’ll take more of a local place where we are, where it’s quieter and we can have a more intimate experience anyway. I would certainly recommend that.
Catherine Monthienvichienchai 8:43
Traditionally, which markets have been key to you and how are you pivoting your business or adapting your business to anticipate what we believe will be these kinds of initial air bubbles between certain countries within—to and from Thailand?
Willem Niemeijer 8:56
The travel bubbles are going to be interesting. I would hope that it will expand pretty quickly. It’s kind of interesting to see, and logical to see it within Asia right now. That makes a lot of sense. But I think local travel is what our geographical markets are about by and large. We have some shorter haul intra-Asia travel but not that much.
I think realistically—Thailand and bilaterally—you’re going to look at how much of the virus is still in a certain destination. And if it’s safe, then those bubbles will expand quicker. Our markets, with our eco lodges, but also with our DMC and other things, are pretty much niche markets. No matter where the niche is: either environmental or cultural niche markets. These are interested travelers. So I expect our type of preference to come back pretty fast. We get a steady trickle of bookings a bit far ahead. People want to travel.
Catherine Monthienvichienchai 10:21
So people are booking for next year, or later this year already?
Willem Niemeijer 10:24
Mostly next year. We have some bookings for December. And like I mentioned before, some are still booked. But I can imagine that people don’t want to book for this year because uncertainty is the problem.
David Keen 10:39
I’m not just saying this because I’m not prone to flattery, but I do genuinely believe that your mindset… the mindset of the types of people that you’re trying to attract, will be a huge growth market as we go into the future because everything you’ve created is for greater purpose. And that’s why I think that’s the core of what I wanted to talk to you about today.
Because I do believe… we believe—in everything that we’ve heard through our podcasts and read and over the last few months—that people are starting to question themselves. They’re not just going to, like we all did, go here, there and everywhere every five minutes. They’re going to have more purpose-driven vacations or trips, or even business trips.
There’s two parts to this. First, you said that historically, the greater proportion of your travelers have been longer-haul—either from the US or I guess out of Europe or Australia—into Asia and less within the Asian region, less intra-Asian travel. Why is that? Will that change? And are you already seeing a greater demand for more purposeful-driven, more purposeful choice?
Willem Niemeijer 12:19
That was definitely a trend that we’ve been seeing. We’ve been very interested in it for a very long time with Khiri Travel before and then with our lodges for a longer time. That came out partly of a great belief in visitor dispersion. So getting visitors in areas where not too many other travelers go for various reasons. You experience the local culture in a much more realistic—authentic way is an overused word—but also spread of the tourism dollar. And in general, we’ve seen what’s happening with over-tourism. It’s basically too many people going to one particular small place. In Asia, this is definitely something that can be prevented.
I always use France as an example. It’s about the same size as Thailand, about the same population. France gets double the amount of tourists than Thailand used to get. And yet, very few people would say that there is consistent over-tourism in France. Some areas maybe, The Louvre perhaps.
David Keen 13:38
Try driving around the south of France anytime in July.
Willem Niemeijer 13:42
It’s not known as a destination. Whereas Thailand… and perhaps rightly so, in some areas, it’s pretty bad.
But anyways, back to your question. Yes, I think people are interested, more and more. It was a trend already and will continue as a trend, specifically after this, into really having an interest in being part of the experience. So we’ve seen that coming a little bit maybe with the tycoon classes and then [unknown] good classes. So making the experience.
But that has now morphed into how can I be part of the solution? I’m going on a trip, what can I do? So the basic science, no plastic bottles, that is more of a passive way. But really actively, what can I do to make sure that I leave this place a better place? Because people learn a lot about climate change, for example, and I do hope this is going to be the next big thing that the travel industry is going to continue working on. There was a bit of a grassroots movement, which completely snowed under the virus. But I think climate change itself and what to do about that… anything we do is probably also a good thing to do to prevent viral spreads… it has to do with visitor dispersion and a more careful way of travel.
Catherine Monthienvichienchai 15:24
I think there are two kinds of points there. There are the optimists who feel that post this current crisis, we will learn from the experience and we will pursue environmental responsibility, sustainability with a much greater impetus and passion. And then there are others, where they believe that there’s just going to be this huge race to get tourism dollars back, and they will just forget all of that good practice and good sensibility.
Willem Niemeijer 15:53
Yeah. Both scenarios are equally possible, I’d say. I think one thing plays an advantage, although it’s sour grapes for those affected. It’s going to be those entrepreneurs that actually did not have a higher purpose but just basically opens whatever it was—a hotel or a restaurant—basically only to cash in on tourism. That’s it. And they have probably been hit very hard and will think, “If I can reopen, I’ve lost so much money. If I can reopen, will I, because will this come back?” Whereas for us with a number of our lodges, we cannot wait to get back open because our lodges help with reforestation, help with protection of the jungle. We cannot wait because we feed families and to make money is really important. Well, we’ll make money again in two years time, it’s fine. But let’s let’s get back to work.
David Keen 17:06
But that’s… I love what you’ve just said. And I think you probably know, I mean, I subscribe for decades to that view. That just providing a facility with no experience and no emotion—let’s say a box to a tourist, be it in Bangkok, in Miami, in Rio or wherever—has no greater purpose and this is what we’re learning right now. Sure, you can have a box or some form of facility —and I’m using the word facility deliberately because it’s a completely unemotional word. You’re saying and you believe that these will be the most challenged brand products as we go into the next couple years
Willem Niemeijer 18:06
Yeah, I would say so. Both in business, as in their business model, but also for themselves. They’ll probably be fearful going forwards. Why would you do this? Because your only risk is money and you can deploy… You can do whatever you want to make money. There’s many ways to make money. Why would you make money in tourism? You’d probably make more… if that’s why you’re in tourism then you’re probably in it because it’s the only thing you can think of, or an easy way to make money. You just look for another way to make money.
Catherine Monthienvichienchai 18:45
They’re going to be the first to give up. The least resilient to this kind of test.
Willem Niemeijer 18:50
For them it’s like well, this is no longer the way to to make money. I’ll go work in stock markets, whatever.
David Keen 19:07
I think that’s actually an incredibly brave thing to say. I obviously know you for a very long time and know you as an entrepreneur and I’m a huge believer in what it is you’re doing—whether it’s supporting a local community or creating an experience that really will move people. But I don’t believe that there are many either entrepreneurs or big industrial players in the hotel industry that would subscribe to what you say. They’re in it for the business.
Willem Niemeijer 19:51
Well, I’m in this for business. Let’s make that clear as well. But that being, I do see a change from the bigger players as well.
David Keen 20:07
Meaningful change or a functional change because they have to?
Willem Niemeijer 20:12
Perhaps they have to… but I do think and believe that for a number of bigger players, it’s because they want to.
Because if you do this, to have more purpose in your life is a good thing to have anyways. And it becomes more… maybe a function of business. In this case, the virus can be a catalyst. I do think the environment is the bigger thing that we all need to worry about. Climate change—whether it’s man-made or not man-made, I will leave that in the middle but it’s there—we have to work around and work with that.
Any movement on the streets right now for more inclusiveness is all going to be part of business. It is already, but this situation drives home. Maybe for someone it will be more function and for others it will be more of a lifestyle and a purpose.
David Keen 21:33
But once they do it, one, as you said it’s a good thing. For whatever reason you do it, it will pan out. We hope that these changes will benefit the tourism landscape as a whole and be of incremental benefit to society. Are you seeing other players copying your ideas and placing them, or adjusting and creating?
Willem Niemeijer 22:13
I wouldn’t call it necessarily my ideas.
David Keen 22:19
Your products, your concepts.
Willem Niemeijer 22:24
Perhaps in some areas… and that’s that’s good. I think what we do is what we see others doing as well. For example, working together with wildlife conservation NGOs.
For a tourism player to work together with a wildlife conservation NGO has basically not really been done here in Asia. Other countries or parts, maybe yes, but not here. And now I can see others doing this and it’s a good thing. But it comes from two ways. It’s not only the tourism industry but I think the wildlife conservation society also sees there’s an opportunity here to raise more awareness and to raise more funds in a whole different way.
I think by and large this is a trend. Our travel products, much the same way. Including local communities—and I hasten to not calling it community-based travel—but including a community into a program, a travel program, is fit for every type of budget. It’s not a thing that only low-budget travelers or non-luxury travelers do. Wealthy people are just as interested in this. Maybe even more.
This is where they want to say: well, how can I contribute? What can I do? I can see the problems, what can I do to contribute? And that leads to a force for good intuition, which I think is logical. If there’s one thing that’s a cultural exchange program it’s tourism, at its best. I think that’s the future, to the future.
David Keen 24:30
Willem, thank you so much for your appearance. I couldn’t agree more. I know Catherine is with me on this. I mean, we couldn’t agree with you more on this being a force for good and let’s hope as we move into the unpredictable future, in these existential threads, that we move into more meaningful and more thoughtful and more educated tourism in the future. Thank you for being on here.
Willem Niemeijer 24:58
Thank you, David.