Years ago when I visited Stonehenge in England, going right up to it, I wasn’t all that impressed to be honest. Then I read up about it and became intrigued by this mysterious Neolithic monument. Too bad for me now. If I go back there with my short-sighted vision, the experience will be far less intimate since the site was fenced in at quite a distance. Sadly, many similar sites can’t be accessed properly, some you don’t want to visit because it’s lost its charm, and others you can only read about, never see. The same applies to experiences, customs that got eroded or compromised by overtourism, climatic change or human interference. It appears the future of tourism as we know it is under threat.. from itself.
Concern for the environment used to exist in the realm of scientists and New Age hippies, but we’ve matured from being eco-friendly simply to be nice, to assuage our guilt about the documented impact of mass tourism over time, the fact that some natural habitats and sites are disappearing or have disappeared, or in response to eco-warrior scaremongering about a depleted ozone layer, deforestation and resulting climate change. We’ve finally (some would say, belatedly) arrived at the point where we actually care about the natural world, its resources, and our neighbour’s welfare; and we acknowledge tourism’s significant impact on all of it.
There’s enough evidence to suggest that especially younger travellers (hello Millennials!) already practise sustainability at home and work; so the demand for sustainable tourism will become more widespread.
They don’t expect to take a holiday from conservation.
We’ve previously explored the various travel motivations and among those, the Enhancing Perspective, Luxury and of course Immersion seem the most pertinent to the argument for sustainability. There’s even a demand for travel to places at risk of disappearing forever.
How do we successfully cater to these motivations without taking a long-term view of the impact tourism has on destinations?
Modern travellers have become conscientised about the health of the planet, about the economic well-being of the communities they visit, and compassionate toward the people living in the destinations they visit. Travel brands must wake up to the demand.
Who cares? Your responsible traveller. They’ll want to work with you to minimise or mitigate negative impact, to make positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage, and generate economic benefits for host communities. They care about the working conditions of the people they interact with on their journey. News reports on modern day slavery in the workplace or seasonal work are always met with abhorrence. Animal interactions and voluntourism to third world orphanages are now controversial. We cannot expect to sustain these kinds of activities without attracting some serious flak.
Responsible tourism holds both the traveller and the tourism business to task in their affiliations, operations and offerings. For you that means seriously considering the finer points of the experience you sell, the accommodations you choose for your client itineraries, and even how you market your brand. The time for it is ripe too, given that UNWTO has designated 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.
So many isms, only one mind-shift. Sustainable tourism is fed by responsible tourism, eco-tourism, ethical tourism and green tourism. Voluntourism also makes a cameo. Euromonitor International refers to Responsible Tourism as the consumer’s choice of destination and tourism products based on ethical, political, cultural, environmental considerations. Ecotourism refers to ecology and the welfare of locals as well as visitors. Ethical Tourism avoids participation in tourism activities that support negative outcomes, from violating human rights to economic expropriation. Green Tourism refers to environmentally friendly travel.
The obvious truth is that entering any area for tourism, we consume resources, we create waste, we absorb a share of its physical capacity, we spend, and we leave behind our own legacy of interactions. Responsible tourism suggests that we eradicate the bad and encourage the good impact. There are travel companies out there that specialise in this kind of tourism as a niche rather than mainstream concept. The uncomfortable truth, if I may, is that the future of tourism needs us to turn that notion on its head.
The old ways have got to go. One bad assumption is that travellers don’t want to interact with locals – the immersive trend suggests otherwise. As is the idea that they only want to see the pretty and have no interest in keeping the natural environment of a destination intact – voluntourism is becoming more popular among different age groups for good reason. Tourism products that contribute in any way to global warming or threaten animal or plant species, need revision. Exclusion of the host community from decision-making that affects them or from economic activity generated by tourism, is certainly not sustainable. Excessive consumption of natural resources in-destination and reckless disposal of waste are unacceptable.
And if we carry on as we are? Then we just fuel the vicious cycle.
Failure to act will probably have dire implications (and not necessarily for the distant future).
Scientists believe we’ll just exacerbate extreme weather conditions, which in turn impedes safe travel, causes water shortages, results in damage due to natural erosion or overtourism.
Damaging natural or historical sites eventually make them less attractive to visitors and/or force them to close, and leave local inhabitants stranded.
Whether you believe in climate change or not, travellers care about it. As the trend gains momentum, people will make a bigger fuss of giving their business to brands that care about climate mitigation. They’ll want to know the brand they book with is invested in the preservation of local natural resources, of the culture, and in the empowerment of the host community.
..local participation, drawing on local perspectives, priorities & knowledge, is a pre-condition of sustainable tourism development.
Paris Declaration on Heritage as a Driver of Development
We’re always moving in the direction of growth but surely not just for the sake of short-term financial gain. Let’s call it a trend for now, but it really constitutes a commitment to doing things differently for posterity. Even in your destination. Iconic or excessively touristy sites are late in recovery but lesser known, off-the-beaten path destinations, especially the ones with less funding available, depend on tourism companies to take a decisive stance if they’re to stand a chance.
Or we’ll find more desperate cases like Barcelona, Venice, Machu Picchu and Iceland, where visitor numbers now have to be limited, locals protest in the streets against infringements on their quality of life, and travellers are viewed (and treated) as a nuisance.
And our focus should always be to enhance the traveller experience.
To achieve genuinely sustainable tourism, companies will need to go beyond the business case & use truly innovative thinking around traveler expectations…use sustainability practices to shape & improve experiences.
A moment ago our Twitter feed displayed a healthy smattering of ‘Save the Rhino’, voluntourism and ecotourism posts. I’m not suggesting that you jump on those bandwagons – the point is that elements of sustainable tourism are increasingly prevalent. #tourism4development #TravelEnjoyRespect
Where are you in this beautiful space? You could start with visitor management, site presentation and promotion of your destinations. Your clients would benefit from prior education on the culture, religion, geography, customs and ecosystem of the destination – tell them what to do, not to do, what to wear or not to wear. The experience you offer should err on the side of observation first in order not to disturb the local wildlife; interaction should be minimal, guided, low impact. Facilitate meaningful interactions between your clients and the host community to promote better understanding of the lifestyle and local issues. Monetising participation in local customs and rituals can become problematic if not handled with sensitivity and respect.
You want to provide your clients with quality immersive experiences that don’t degrade or damage cultural values. You want to offer adventure packaged as environmentally friendly tourism products. Apply the concept of heritage-based tourism – it presents opportunities to invest in culture and local industries/services to sustain and showcase cultural assets. That works for the host community and it resonates positively with the traveller.
As one of the world’s leading employment sectors, tourism provides important livelihood opportunities, helping to alleviate poverty & drive inclusive development.
There are working examples of niche concepts building on its capacity with sustainable business strategies, where locals are employed by the tourism companies, local accommodation is used for the duration of a tour, local produce is sourced, which simultaneously ensures additional value to local communities and visitors getting to sample the same fresh and homegrown produce that locals consume. This kind of involvement is an obvious, simple way to keep cultures thriving. Indigenous knowledge, cultural traditions and practices can be harnessed to guide effective management of natural resources too.
Educating and sharing knowledge with your host community are mutually beneficial, that much is obvious. Again, some may struggle to see the bottom-line benefit of expending extra resources, but sustainability is precisely about taking the long-term view. Your local community might be too hasty to jump onto the cash cow of local tourism without the necessary insights, and that’s where your vision should shine through. UNESCO cited tourism as being responsible for 9% of gross domestic product globally and providing 1 in 11 jobs, but that’s not all:
Currently contributing approx. 5% of the global total, carbon emissions from tourism are predicted to more than double within 25 years.
Cue initiatives like litter clean-ups, recycling or other green collaborations with local NGO’s or community leaders. Sustainability seeks to encourage self-driving trips, train journeys, boating, biking, low carbon emission modes of transport. Where possible, include local public transport and restaurants that source food in the vicinity, in your travel products. Promote souvenir shopping at local markets for locally crafted goods and engage with your community about cultural, gastronomy, music and sport events.
Share your marketing platforms in order to promote your destination from the community perspective. In fact, one simple way you can contribute to its preservation is to archive heritage sites and experiences digitally for easy public access. It means you’ve bound your brand to the well-being of your destination and its people. It communicates your values and initiatives, and the integrity of your travel products and experiences.
What does all it mean for your business, brand and tourism in the long-term? The ideal is a natural symbiosis between travellers desiring a local cultural immersion and wishing to associate with brands that have good relationships with their local community, and that provide economic support and opportunities. In turn, your association with suppliers that share your values can be managed by setting a code of conduct to meet waste targets and other ecological requirements. Elicit feedback from clients – you can even reward it – on programmes to run in-destination, on ideas for fundraising, educational projects, causes to support, etc.
Get travellers intimately involved in the destination with opportunities to give back, so giving them a sense of emotional and physical well-being.
Your host community becomes your local partners, they’re economically empowered or consulted, and they’re up-skilled in the process.
It’s the age for brand loyalty, especially for luxury travellers who may be persuaded to spend a bit more to support companies that endorse their values.
Travellers are considering their options more carefully in fear of global warming and their carbon footprint. We share the responsibility for protecting endangered animal and plant species within our destinations. The prevalent wanderlust for local interaction compels us to save cultural heritage from exploitation, disruption and obliteration. Considering that I’ll never realise my wish to visit the French caves of Lascaux, long since closed to public, it feels like our business of tourism is in jeopardy. What’s needed is a mind-shift: for the niche to enter the mainstream, and sustainable tourism to become, just, tourism.