Khiri Travel: Taking a Slow Route to the Future of Tourism
Mark Bibby Jackson talks with Willem Niemeijer founder of Khiri Travel, and CEO of YAANA Ventures about Slow Travel.
The past few years have seen many people, companies and organisations talking about the existential climate crisis, but how many of them are actually doing anything about it? Words are cheap but costly for the planet. So, it comes as a refreshing change to talk with something who is saying very little about the travel and tourism industry’s contribution to global heating, but is actually doing something reduce it.
When Willem Niemeijer co-founded Khiri Travel in 1993, the intention always was to give something back to the community. The Dutchman who has made Thailand his adopted home says that the company was designed to ensure local people benefited from tourism, as such it was a forerunner of global community-based tourism initiatives. Making travel a force for good was written into its mission statement.
Triple Bottom Line Approach
By the late 90s, thanks to the work of pioneers in the sector such as the late Maurice Strong, it became clear that the environment was equally if not more important than the community. Therefore the company adopted a triple bottom line approach to its business – profit, community and the environment.
Chatting with Niemeijer via Zoom it is hard to imagine him joining a Greenpeace protest or hugging trees. For him, making a profit is an essential part of business, just not at any cost.
“We can see the effect of travel upon the environment on the ground, so it makes sense for our tours to be part of the solution, to include awareness raising into them, and to work with local organisations,” says Niemeijer.
Khiri became Travelife certified in 2016, and are currently going through their third round of certifications. For them sustainability is a key component of any responsible business.
“We really take sustainability seriously but it is not our job, we are here to put tours together,” he says, once more the businessperson coming to the fore.
Joining the SunX Malta CFT Registry
This is why earlier this year, Khiri joined the SUNx Malta Climate Friendly Travel Registry. Khiri had already joined Tourism Declares, but according to Niemeijer they were struggling to find a framework to turn their Climate Emergency Plan into reality.
“What we do every day is to put together tours,” he explains. “We were looking for a similar type of framework to Travelife to become more climate aware, which is why we joined the registry.
“It is a great start and will really help to get our products so that we can lower our carbon footprint. It gives us a framework on how we grapple with this enormous issue.”
Niemeijer is happy for other companies to look at their climate emergency plan, and hopes that it will help inspire them to do likewise.
How to be carbon-neutral and competitive
For Niemeijer however, the key issue is how to operate in a more carbon neutral manner and stay competitive.
“We still have to come up with something with what people want to buy,” he says.
In the Mekong Region, which is one of the regions where Khiri operates, the typical travel package is a multi-destination Indochina trip, where travellers cram Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – and prior to the current political crisis, Myanmar – into two to three weeks. The combination of countries might vary but the climate impact remains pretty constant, especially as time constraints necessitate travellers take flights between destinations.
“This is ridiculous,” says Niemeijer. “How can you see four countries in three weeks. These are diverse countries.”
Read more: Cardamom Tented Camp Wins Eco-tourism award.
For him the solution is to promote slow travel with less moving between places.
“We can offer people to slow their travel, or just do one country. To stay longer in one place, to explore more, and take the train to travel,” he says.
For Niemeijer the benefits of adopting such a slow travel approach are not just a lower carbon footprint.
“If you want to do something for the community then stay longer and learn more about it. This way you can experience the community more,” he says.
Khiri has already put the slow travel message into practice in Vietnam with its making the most of each moment project.
Putting Words into Actions
Together with its parent organisation YAANA Ventures, Khiri Travel has implemented a series of initiatives that reduce their carbon impact and support local communities.
One example is YAANA’s Anurak Lodge Rainforest Rising project, where guests plant trees and nurse the saplings into a natural forest, indistinguishable from the adjacent National Park.
All Khiri destinations are currently putting in place alternatives for single-use plastic bottles, including promoting Refill My Bottle, an initiative for locals and visitors alike.
A Slow Road Back
Currently, of course, the Climate Crisis is not the only crisis in town.
Globally millions of people have lost their livelihoods due to Covid, and neither the Mekong region nor Thailand has proved immune. By the time international tourism returns to Thailand, perhaps in October should the proposed Phuket sandbox trial prove successful, Khiri will have lost almost two years’ income. This impacts upon all those people in the supply chain.
“If people don’t have enough food to feed their families then they won’t act to stop the climate crisis,” he says.
However, Niemeijer is confident that they can work with travellers, communities and tour operators to create more sustainable, greener packages – to travel more slowly.
“We are a specialist DMC so we normally work with tour operators who have sustainability as part of their DNA,” he says. Typically the EU and the UK leads the way in this responsible form of travel with other markets, such as the US, catching up fast.
Niemeijer is confident about the future of travel to the region, and is hopefully that when visitors do return it will be in a slower and more responsible manner. They will also be in for an unforgettable time.
“It is going to be a great experience simply because it is going to be so quiet. Angkor, the Grand Palace, the islands, national parks and beaches – are all going to be very quiet after reopening,” he says. “The quality in experiencing these places is going to be great.”
Main image of Thanh Toan village, Vietnam.