I admit, this interview is a bit long but it is totally worth reading!! Wout Neckermann, a world traveler and good friend of mine has traveled to a lot of places in his life. Back in 2012 Wout and me studied Tourism Destination Management at NHTV in Breda, which is close to Amsterdam. We also spent 3 awesome months in Australia, Thailand and Indonesia working on a study project. Get inspired by what he has to tell….
1. Wout, you have lived in quite a number of countries. Tell us more about that.
Well, for the biggest part of my childhood and adolescence, I was living in Southern Africa. My parents really enjoy road tripping, so I spent quite a lot of time discovering that beautiful part of the world with them and my siblings. My first ever trip without them was when I visited the family of my classmate and friend in Mauritius, together with him and his father, at the age of 12. When I came back to Belgium for my higher studies, the travel bug had bitten me and during my final bachelor year I spent some time in Latin America for an internship and backpacking. As you know, during our master course in TDM, we did a 3-month study trip in Southeast Asia, after which I decided to extend my ticket for some more backpacking, followed by a year of volunteering in Indonesia. Following this, I wanted to learn more about transversal governance so I enrolled in a second master course, for which I spent a research internship with the United Nations University in Japan. It was quite a shock for me, to be in Japan. The more I travel, the more I seem to realise how little I really know, and the more I want to keep learning.
2. You have quite a huge travel map. What are your favourite countries to visit?
In total, I think I’ve set foot in about 40 countries, spread over 4 continents (EU, Africa, Latin America and Asia)… But travel is about so much more than simply checking countries off a list! The two most important aspects that I look for in a tourism destination are people and nature. Thus, my favourite destinations so far have been my childhood home Zimbabwe (adventurous, stunningly beautiful and a Walhalla for lovers of arts & crafts), Bosnia-Herzegovina (mountainous with an interesting convergence of Oriental and Occidental influences), Indonesia (idyllic paradise islands are the tip of the iceberg, with magical wonderlands hiding under the waves) and Bolivia (every traveller’s dream, with the most diverse set of tourism assets I’ve ever come across in a single country). I could keep going, but I have to keep it short, unfortunately…
3. Which have been your most meaningful experiences?
My most memorable experience was a day stroll across the Myanmar border from Thailand, into Myawadi. We stumbled upon this ‘Crocodile Temple’, where a ceremony took place because a family was handing over their son to serve as a Buddhist monk. Our small group was invited to have lunch with them. There were some children hanging around the temple, and I took some photos with them. You should have seen the delight in their eyes upon seeing themselves on the camera screen! The people on the Myanmar side are much poorer, yet somehow they all seemed genuinely happier than their Thai counterparts. The pure and happy character of these beautiful people in this innocent magical place where money didn’t seem an issue left a great impact on me.
My most important shift in focus took place when I was living in Indonesia for a year, where I worked for a bilateral cooperation project between the Indonesian government and the (Swiss) SECO. The project aimed to empower the people of Flores Island through a sustainable tourism destination management programme. I had always been into the natural conservation aspect of sustainability, but now I really got to understand the importance of social sustainability, and accountability, when speaking in terms of (tourism, or simply economic) ‘development’. So it came to be that my career focus changed to development cooperation. Come to think of it, isn’t this sector the peak of ‘responsible tourism’? I am happy that the outcomes of my new career choices will have impacts beyond simply increasing corporate profits.
Next month I will start working for the Belgian Development Agency, as M&E in a project to support the health sector of Northern Bénin. I’m quite sure that I will have more to tell after these 2 years to come!
4. How important is sustainable tourism and responsible traveling for you?
Well, it has been a developing trend over the past few decades, hasn’t it? I too am a supporter of the PPP-tripod, the principle that considers People, Planet and Profit when developing and managing a tourism destination and/or tourism products. I am not ignorant of ‘green tourism’ and all those other labels being used as marketing tools, but I believe in the essence that benefits should be divided among all stakeholders, i.e. companies and investors, local populations, and environmental protection.
Beyond sharing in the benefits, local inhabitants and the natural environment also need to be protected from the negative consequences that irresponsible tourism practices can bring about, through careful planning by authorities on all levels as well as by tourism development contractors and agencies. Furthermore, tourists should be sensitised on topics of critical importance. This is not just a matter of ethics, but also one of viability: if a destination’s carrying capacity is surpassed, it will become less attractive and eventually decline in quality (and income per tourist). Furthermore, in order to keep up with the competitive industry, a sustainable tourism destination or product needs to have a profitable business model that will allow it to continually reinvest in rejuvenation projects so that it can remain competitive vis-à-vis others.
I personally like to think of myself as an aware traveller. Especially on the cultural front, I am doing pretty well with this. When visiting another country, I try to keep my own culture to myself whilst learning as much as I can about local norms and values, and I do my best to abide by these. Unfortunately, I have also visited a tiger temple whilst I was in Thailand. I now know that it is a cruel business; and I hope people are becoming more aware of such things. Furthermore, I am quite a disaster for our planet’s atmosphere, considering the carbon emissions from my flight history…
5. You are quite an achiever and inspiring person at the same time. Tell us what is your philosophy of life and which impact you want to make in this world?
Haha, thank you! My philosophy of life? Ouf, a deep question…
I think our personalities evolve over time, and the things from our past that we are now reflexive about tend to become traits that define our character. I like to see myself as a humanist; I believe in the good of people, regardless of what first impressions they give. I am a third culture kid, which technically means that I have no ‘defined culture’. But everybody has their personal ‘culture’. I hope that by treating those I interact with in a respectful manner, I can learn to appreciate these differences. I guess that this humanism extends into my travel philosophy, which is a constant learning process.
I’m also somewhat of a tree hugger: I have a lot of love for everything to do with Nature. The existence of Life is such an amazing thing, don’t you think? I really feel that we should get back to the basics of appreciating Life in all its forms, and put the stress of career and money aside sometimes. I would love to ‘rewild’ myself, but disconnecting from ‘the System’ is very tough; all our consumer goods are produced by corporations who have little or no respect for natural and human welfare. That is why travel is good for us. I am trying to be the change that I want to see, by combining travel with a little bit of my own impact. I am hoping to make somewhat of a career in development cooperation; at least I can give something back in return for a travel experience that is more than just a mere stamp in my passport.
Matthias: Thanks so much for inspiring us, Wout! I wish you all the best for your future projects and travels and look forward to see you again. In case you got interested, check out his Master Thesis: Sustainable Development of a Tourism Destination: Realism or Idealism?