Aligning Interests of Destinations and Travelers

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Experts Share Strategies on Community-Based Tourism

In the wake of COVID-19, the tourism sector is seeking what UNWTO calls "healing solutions" as part of creating a new normal for one of the world's major economic sectors. Sustainability is imperative, and at the heart of it all is managing our connectedness.

The silver lining of the COVID-19 phenomenon may well be a greater appreciation for our connectedness, and a deeper desire to explore that kinship as a primary driver of travel. It is my hope that the days of superficial, bucket list "look at me" travel, with its emphasis on the exoticness of a specific scene as a backdrop for self, is over. It is my hope that we are inspired to slow down, connect and respect our unique differences, and shared humanity. It is my hope we remember the fundamental reason we travel: to learn about life in other places.

Since mankind became ambulatory, much of our travel has been driven by the desire for meaning, enlightenment, and experiencing and identifying with the Other. Whether in Biblical times, the Renaissance, or the counterculture movement of the 1960s, in most cases, there was a fundamental respect for the wisdom and beauty of the visited cultures. Whether quests took the form of trade, pilgrimage, teaching, or studying, experiencing the unique and distinct customs, knowledge, and lifestyle of the host society was the purpose of the journey.

In our own lives and as a collective, there are inflection points when we are inspired, often through pain, to examine our realities and our priorities. At these junctures, whether motivated by external events or interior discomfort, we ask ourselves if our beliefs and practices are consistent with each other--and if they are working for us or working against us. Many of us step back even further, and examine if our principles and philosophies are working in the interest of the common good.

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Such reflection is part of the human experience; it is how we learn, change, and adapt. Oftentimes, there is an accompanying recognition that what we had thought was progress was, in fact, a distraction, an illusion, an indulgence. Somehow, we lost sight of what really matters. In these moments of clarity, we remember. The whole point had always been a connection.

What will it take to revive that connection? I would say we need to go back to the long-ago mindset that one visits a place to listen, learn, identify, honor and connect with the people who are our hosts.

In that spirit, it is a privilege to share thinking by six tourism visionaries around the world on community-based tourism, as well offer my own two cents. With these kinds of approaches in place, the interests of travelers and communities can align and flourish.


Planning and Design

Cillian Murphy MSc., Cillian Murphy Consulting, Ireland


How can tourism service the community needs, rather than the other way round? We need to change our thinking around three things, the metrics we use to measure it, the marketing we use to deliver it, and ultimately, the model we use to develop it.

We need to measure tourism in a different way, it is no longer appropriate to take the easy route and simply measure the volumes of visitors; large numbers of visitors are no guarantee that the economy of the host community is benefiting. A full hotel is not necessarily a profitable one. So we need to measure tourism, not by visitor numbers, but by how effective, or not, it is in creating local prosperity, local employment, a healthy local environment and net local benefits for the host community within which it occurs. We need to start measuring what matters at host community level, its value to the host community, because if we get it wrong, it is at a local level where the negative impacts will be felt first, and where the push back from irresponsible development will start.

The most important thing any destination should do is control the narrative around their own home, it is easily forgotten by the tourism industry that these are not just destinations; they are home to a lot of people.

The standard tourism marketing system has a glaring design fault, those who manage the story do not have to manage the destination. Using local areas to market the national product in the international marketplace without considering the local consequences is irresponsible. In many places this is threatening the social fabric of the host communities, creating localized capacity issues and negative environmental impacts, it is also delivering poor visitor experiences, and ultimately undermining the sustainability of the local tourism industry and the community reliant upon it. Destination marketing needs to start with capacity building host communities so they understand there are consequences to how their place is marketed, so they understand what those consequences may be and allowing them to decide what story should be told about their home and who is telling it.

The current system is marketing led, we need to move to a community development led model. This model leads to an assest based, co-created industry, more responsible marketing and a sustainable destination, one not founded on what tourists want, but founded instead on why the community need it, what role does it perform for them. I co-founded Loop Head Tourism in 2009, a community based destination development organisation based on the Loop Head Peninsula, www.loophead.ie midway along the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland. Our goal was to ensure tourism development was done by us, for us.

The loss of fishing and farming incomes meant we needed a replacement economic driver for the area. This shift in thinking meant we realized that tourism itself, was not the goal, rather it is just a tool, one, if used properly had the capacity to deliver economic sustainability for our coastal community. This meant minimizing the leakage from tourism income out of our community. I use the image of a leaky bucket to represent a destinations economy. The water flowing in is the tourism income stream, but the bucket has a lot of little holes in it, money each business spends outside the destination in raw goods, services and wages, the leakage. How do we fill up the bucket?

Standard, marketing driven, tourism development strategies, focus on finding more and more taps, to keep pouring water in faster then it leaks out…it is wastefull, inefficient, and expensive because you are paying twice, once to find the taps, and secondly to clean up the water flowing all over the floor.

The community development led approach looks to block up the holes, for instance, by encouraging businesses to look at retaining their purchasing and wages within the locality. Strategically, one could also prioritize giving access or exposure to those operators who deliver the highest local benefit instead of those simply delivering the highest volume of traffic.


Discerning Objectives

Gary Estcourt, Director, BCN Heritage, Sydney, Australia

A few years ago I worked for a heritage grants program. Applicants submitted Expressions of Interest for projects. These could be as simple as a vague desire along the lines of ‘we want to use our local heritage to develop connections in the community and increase visitation.’

I met with the local historical society in Haberfield, an inner west Sydney suburb, that had literally been cut in half by the construction of a new motorway. They had applied for a grant for interpretive signage around the suburb. The society had worked out the text for the sign, the images and where they were going to go. They just needed the funds to get the signs made and installed.

When I met them, my first question was 'What do you want to achieve?' The answer was easy; they wanted to put in signs because that’s what they knew and because signs generally get funded.

What they wanted to achieve was a very different thing. They wanted to celebrate their stories, create connections and reinvigorate a sense of community.

This project wasn’t about just signs. A historical society might put signs in. A historical society working with the arts organisation could fill walls with murals.

Working with schools could be a way to teach students how to undertake historical research. They could then come up with the stories that would go onto the signage to be installed. Giving a new generation a connection and sense of ownership over the stories and history of the area.

When I asked if there were any other stories that related to specific ethnicities or cultural groups that needed to be included I was told: 'Apart from the post-WW2 Italian migration, there isn’t really any of that sort of thing around here. Plus, Leichardt already has an Italian Festival.'

Then, at one point in our meeting, one of the gentlemen, almost as an aside said 'You see up the street there, well the queen of Tonga and her entourage and family would come and stay there for months at a time because of the strong influence of Methodist missionaries in the Pacific. So back to our signs…'

Queen Salote Tupou III, was the Queen of Tonga from 1918 to her death in 1965; some of her honours included Order of the British Empire; Dame Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George and; Dame Grand Cross of Order of St John.

This is what I learnt from this experience.

If you only speak to one group or one person you only get one story or one approach. Whether it is trying to come up with solutions to over-tourism, trying to develop sustainable tourism products or trying to find a meaningful way to celebrate the history and heritage of a place - the most important thing you can do is speak to the community.

In my experience when it comes to engaging with the community as a basic set of practical steps I would suggest the following:

  • Find out what you want to achieve; not the outputs but the outcomes. It is generally not about the signs, it is about what the signs are trying to do.
  • Speak to as many relevant groups in the community who can contribute to these outcomes as you can. By imaginative and innovative in who could be involved.
  • Get them together, none of us knows it all. Set the ground rules and co-design what the final outcomes will look like.
  • Come up with the steps that you need to go through to get from where you are now to the final project.
  • Break the project into discrete steps so the different parts of it can be done at different time utilizing different funding sources or grants as they become available.

Ultimately, the only way that any outcomes are going to be beneficial to a community is if the outcomes come from that community.


Identifying Sustainabilty Principles

Grace Nderitu, CEO, Ecotourism Kenya

The Kenya Vision 2030 is a national development blueprint that has recognized tourism as one of the key economic drivers that will help transform Kenya into a newly industrialized, highly competitive and middle-level income country.  One of the strategies to ensure Kenya continuous to offer high-end, diverse and distinctive visitor experience is the creation of new high value niche products such as cultural tourism, eco-sports and water-based tourism.

Local communities are well placed to contribute significantly to the strategy of niche products with the focus on cultural tourism. Cultural tourism as a form of Community-Based Tourism (CBT) compliments all the other activities and is available in all parts of the country.  The Kenyan tourism industry players believe that this product has not been fully developed or exploited and holds a lot of potential for the Country and the communities as well.

Successful CBTs in Kenya have mainly relied on donor and NGOs funding, and it is widely accepted that the long-term development of CBT needs commercial principles and a linkage to mainstream tourism. Against this backdrop, a 3-year initiative titled, ‘Enhancing Sustainable Tourism Innovation for Community Empowerment in Kenya (SUS-TOUR)’, was developed by Ecotourism Kenya a not for profit business membership association in collaboration with partners within the framework of Switch Africa Green to support CBT development in Kenya.

Community-Based Tourism Enterprises (CBTEs) in Kenya face a myriad of problems ranging from poor governance to low product quality and markets. The SUS-TOUR project has developed tools aimed at assisting the CBTEs in Kenya to improve their businesses. Some of the tools developed include a Market-oriented Innovation Tool, which is presented in the form of a practical training manual, a CBT-product Marketing Guideline and a Sustainable CBTE Checklist for Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) in the CBT segment of tourism.

SUS-TOUR found out that a significant number of CBTEs in Kenya run their enterprises without incorporating principles of sustainable CBT practices.  Consequently, they model their businesses mainly based on personal experiences which might not be consistent with the sustainable CBT principles. After all, the policy framework for CBTEs in Kenya is weak and communities are largely unaware of organizations that have established guidelines and standards for CBT in Kenya. It is because of this situation that the SUS-TOUR developed a checklist for CBTEs. The major objective of the checklist is to assist CBTEs in the self-assessment of their businesses and gauge how they align to the principles of sustainable CBT.

The checklist was developed based on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Community Based Tourism Standards and the 10-Year Framework of Programmes (10YFP) on Sustainable Consumption and Production. It identified 10 principles of sustainable community-based tourism which include community involvement, partnerships, legal status, and social dignity, benefit sharing mechanisms, local economies, culture, natural resources management, and good governance.  Indicators are described under each principle. The project intends to develop a detailed CBT Guidebook based on the principles identified in the checklist.

The SUS-TOUR project was developed with the aim of providing innovative solutions to promote sustainable CBT in the country as they face major challenges, especially in the aspects of product development, marketing and governance. The SUSTOUR’s CBTE checklist will help in addressing some of these challenges as it is likely to enhance the product development and governance for CBTEs.


Starting a Dialogue & Creating a Methodology

Luca D'Angelo, Director, Dolomiti Paganella Future Lab, Italy

With almost 5, 000 inhabitants and more than two million tourist visits per year, the alpine territory of Dolomiti Paganella (North Italy) is often held up as a case study for its tourism organizational model. Still, diverse future challenges await us. Precisely for this reason, before the COVID-19 crisis hit us and the rest of the world, we wanted more people to have a word in the conversation about the community’s future.

How could we use tourism to create a better future for our community, our tourists and our beautiful natural alpine environment? These are the main, big challenges that we are trying to face with our most important project ever, the Dolomiti Paganella Future Lab (DPFL). 

The Future Lab is a research-intervention think-tank on the future, involving not only the main stakeholders in the resorts, but also--and for the first time ever--our whole community. The Future Lab is designed with the aim of determining today how tourism can continue to represent a positive force for the good of our community in future decades. The goal is to ensure our territory remains as attractive and stimulating for its visitors and, above all, for the local inhabitants.

The DPFL has started back in October 2019, in a pre-COVID-era, with a kick-off event attended by more than 700 people, a series of more than 20 workshop with local stakeholders, and a comprehensive survey on winter tourists. During this period we investigated four tough challenges, as the ones most likely to influence the destiny of our area:

  • What is our destination’s DNA, and how do we uncover it?
  • How do we involve future generations in co-creating our destination?
  • How can our destination thrive in a future shaped by climate change?
  • How do we create a more sustainable and balanced form of tourism?

Our aspiration? To help achieve a shared long-term strategic vision for our destination so that everyone can assume an active role in the process of change, rather than simply enduring it passively.

These issues are still there, and even more powerful now, in the post-COVID-era. We quite simply need to absorb the COVID-19 crisis as a central strategic pillar of the project.  Our future planning and destination development need to address that we are in a time of crisis, and be reflected in our research, analysis, in-depth stakeholder interviews and dialogue with public officials. This could take the form of a new economic model, where the community works together and establishes possible new common economic principles for the future. 

This approach will serve to further embed the project in the current reality and will provide a clear and concise mission for the Future Lab: to mitigate the negative impacts of the current crisis, as well as any future crisis situations.

The Dolomiti Paganella Future lab is still what it set out to be, to begin with: A lab focusing on the long-term development and strategic decisions for the destination-based around four tough challenges. The COVID19 situation has surely changed the here-and-now context of the destination and also the Future lab, but we are re-scaling, refocusing and re-charging the project, to make the best and most effectual impact of the destination's new reality and future.


Nurturing Entrepreneurs and Developing Capacity

Dr Giang Phi, Aalborg University, Denmark

CBT Travel & Consulting connects local CBTs with the tourism market and supports local capacity building through training and transferring tourism and hospitality skills for sustainable operations, management, and cultural/environmental conservation of community-based and community-benefit tourism.

CBT Travel & Consulting follows a simplified model of hand-on tourism training/coaching and a long-term commitment to local communities. Local ownership is achieved through diverse financing models: (1) personal investment by local residents, (2) partial low-interest loans from local/provincial governments, (3) partial in-kind support from local NGOs, (4) full grant support from INGOs and (5) partial in-kind donations of used equipment and expert volunteers from luxury hotel chains. Through using local materials and renovating existing facilities, the initial investment cost is also cut to between USD 1,000 to USD 4,000 per homestay.

A range of value-added tourism services that link to locals’ existing livelihoods provides further opportunities for the broader community members to participate in tourism and increase the destination attractiveness to tourists. It is estimated that one CBT project can currently generate 79 direct tourism-related jobs. The shared governance between the provincial government, local government, local community stakeholders (e.g., homestay owners, tourism workers, general villagers, etc) and the private tourism sector also helps to ensure the long-term sustainability of these projects.

To scale up, the first successful project ‘CBT Mai Hich’ has served as a demonstration and living model for other community projects. CBT Travel & Consulting also actively organises seminars, workshops and conferences to introduce the organisation’s models to a diverse range of actors. However, while CBT Travel & Consulting can help to create initial success, empowering local communities to develop sufficient capabilities to independently manage tourism activities and impacts over the long-run presents another significant challenge.

The need to nurture local social entrepreneur talents and develop local communities’ capacities are clear, yet tourism programs in developing countries (including Vietnam) still mostly adopt Western models of business education that overlooks local needs, especially the needs of indigenous and rural communities. The 1st TEFI symposium and walking workshop in Vietnam thus was held on 10-16 January to seek a bottom-up approach to education for community-based tourism, social entrepreneurship and sustainable development. The event helped to identify local educational needs to create the first ‘School for Community-benefit Tourism’ in South-east Asia, with the potential of replicating success to other parts of Vietnam and other countries with similar conditions.


Empowering Community-Led Tourism

Dr. Marina Novelli, University of Brighton, U.K.

The tourism sector is characterized by an unaccounted number of myths and misconception, such as promises of development, wealth growth and sustainable futures to name just a few. Research shows however that results have been often far from such positive undertakings, with variable levels of environmental, social and economic impacts.

So the question is: “How can we try and make tourism a better sector for all?”

Maybe starting by acting more selectively when accepting an assignment as a tourism specialist, by taking responsibility when choosing a holiday, by acting at the best of our abilities when offering a product of service and, most importantly, by respecting the context in which we operate and the people that host us?

Indeed, resident communities have become the center of multiple discussions in tourism studies, but the fact is that, unless they are the subject of some kind of ‘theatrical performance’ in the tourism ‘host-guest encounter’, they remain largely ignored with their engagement in decision making remaining generally tokenistic.

Generally, when thinking of tourism, imagery comes to mind of pristine places; sandy beaches; natural reserves; heritage sites; holiday resorts; iconic sceneries; airports; and luxury hotels. We tend not to think about space politics, social justice, gender equality, poverty alleviation, environmental management, or the impact that epidemics and conflict may have on a destination and its people.

As Western consumers, we tend to ignore mobility rights and the privileged freedom of circulation across the globe granted by holding the ‘right passport’. We only come close to acknowledging these as if our own right to travel is suddenly hindered by a nativist and populist political climate pushing for questionable travel bans based on nationality or religious beliefs or, worse, if imposed by an unexpected epidemic, such as the Covid-19.

Globally, tourism is increasingly portrayed as able to contribute to local sustainable development. International Development Agencies, national and regional development bodies, private and third sector organisations see tourism as important tools for socio-economic development, cross-sector integration, peacebuilding and environmental preservation and so on. However, despite their many benefits, my research showed that tourism development comes with a number of complications. My research revealed new insights into the necessity for a shift from a 20th to a 21st-century conceptual framing of tourism planning paradigms, which pays close attention to the rapidly changing macro-environmental conditions in which tourism operates.

In today’s volatile economic climate, changing consumer behaviors have an increasing impact on global commerce. The speed of markets’ change, the blurring of traditional demographic boundaries, the growing power of the consumer through technology and the nature of globalization are making trend determination and their adequate exploitation essential for success. This is particularly important in the travel and tourism sector, where the traveller’s selection of goods and services is instrumental for living an experience. It’s not a new fact that customers are different and increasingly discerning of the products and services they buy. They are more and more tech-enabled and more time-pressured. They have less and less time in which to make decisions, but higher and higher expectations that those decisions will prove to have been the right ones, so Destinations and National Tourism Organisations face significant challenges to address them.

In many developing and emerging economies, tourism has been positioned as the great development hope for peripheral regions and communities and as a potential driver in the development of a new urban and rural areas’ experience economy. On the other hand, the climate crisis has posed some critical questions on the sustainability of travelling by air…and I won’t be the one telling those remote communities that we are no longer coming because of the climate crisis!

A growing number of academic and industry-based research points to an encouraging trend of socially and environmentally conscientious hosts and travellers, who employ tourism as a transformative medium to promote sustainable practices and consequently a more conscious living on our planet. In other words, increasingly, transformative travellers use their trips to reinvent themselves and the world they live in. It is in this context, that we see the increasing need for conscious and transformative holidays as a trend where responsible travelling can provide the means to change both lifestyles, as well as increase the positive and caring impact made on destinations and their communities - whether through women empowerment, conservation or poverty alleviation focused interventions.

Recalling the potential of tourism to advance the universal 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, it is hoped that responsible practices will increasingly be placed right at the heart of the agenda of many tourism operators and inspire many more consumers. However, the danger in approaching tourism only from a commercially focused perspective and reacting purely to shifting market demands remains. One would hope that this will influence the way change may increasingly come from “bottom up” actions, grounded into place-based communities’ agency and resilience, a system where tourism operates responsibly within a visitor economy that works for all.


Bring Tourists & Communities Together by Creating Digital Peace Corps

Meg Pier, Founder & Editor, Best Cultural Destinations, U.S.

Prior to the pandemic, tourism was grappling with the opposite extreme: over-tourism. Looking back at that dilemma, the trend I perceived as the single biggest contributor to over-tourism was an obsessive focus by both travelers and DMOs on sharing superficial impressions--mostly through images. This symbiotic speciousness degraded travel as a competitive sport and popularity contest fueled by FOMO, “Fear of Missing Out”. The focal point of travel for many was self, which to me is the antithesis of attitudes travel should cultivate: curiosity, empathy, and open-mindedness.

However, there were bright spots in the Instagram way of relating to the world: it underscored a fundamental need to believe one matters, and a desire for connection. With some inspired leadership, these motivations could be channeled for vastly more constructive ends than generating “Likes”. The companies whose technologies fueled exploitation of picturesque landscapes could choose to instead leverage the emotional needs their products have tapped into for the greater good.

How?

Throughout the world, there are many rural areas that rely heavily on tourism, and need the means to supplement that income in the off season, or when circumstances of any sort curtail visitors. How can this be achieved?

The social media platforms that many believe contributed significantly to the over-tourism problem could give back and help solve the feast-or-famine dilemma. Facebook/Instagram, Google/Youtube and Pinterest could fund experiential tourism/digital media initiatives by establishing creative hubs in rural tourism areas rich with culture. Exchange programs around the world could be set up in which travelers and local residents together document inter-cultural experiences for mass consumption and educational curriculum. These gatherings would not be bound by any seasonality and would involve connecting and interaction vs narcissistic navel-gazing.

These collaborative centers, a Digital Peace Corp. if you will, could foster personal and professional development skills for both visiting tourists and locals in the realms of visual arts, traditional crafts, listening, mindfulness, story-telling, journalism, creativity, interviewing, video production, to name a few. Ongoing workshops, experiences, happenings, listening sessions could be led by both locals and visiting creatives.

Dreaming even bigger dreams, these centers could convene ongoing symposiums that seek to solve important social issues. Going back in time, think of history's great learning centers: Plato's Academy, Babylon, Buddhist monasteries, Timbuktu, the Alhambra. Why not create an Aspen Institute, CGI or Davos for the "regular" people who want to make a difference? You don't have to be a billionaire or world leader to have good ideas, or a desire to contribute. Social media platforms could fund scholarships or lotteries for those interested, and then promote their experience and output to start a ripple effect.

Examples of just a few successful programs today that could inform a model for such a Digital Peace Corp. are eco community Findhorn in Scotland; free culture advocate Instituto Procomum in Brazil; creative technologies educator TUMO in Armenia; U.S.-based Global Girl Media, active in Kenya, Kosovo, Morocco, South Africa and elsewhere; English language immersion Vaughn Town in Spain; preservationists & peace catalysts Cultural Heritage without Borders, active in the Balkans, Kenya & Syria; and GoUnesco, based in India.There are plenty of organizations doing great work that can be replicated and scaled.

The Insta phenomenon can be leveraged, taken deeper and be turned outward. Convert the technology and the psychological needs it created/addresses to better serve humanity and the planet. My challenge to Facebook/IG: construct a corporate and societal legacy that is truly meaningful.

COVID-19 has shown us just how interconnected we all are. Let's make that work for us.

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Have you engaged in community based tourism? Share your experience with other BCD readers by making a comment!

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