Twenty years ago the post-apartheid government in South Africa adopted the principles of Responsible Tourism in their national tourism policy and the campaign for Responsible Tourism began in the UK. To mark this anniversary, and the fact that 2016 sees the 10th anniversary of the responsible tourism programme at WTM London, this year the flagship Roundtable Interview shifted from interviewing mainstream industry representatives, to discussing responsible tourism issues with some of the movement’s pioneers, providing a chance “objectively and critically to see how much progress we have made and to look forward to see how far we can go over next 20 years,” according to WTM London Senior Director, Simon Press. “Responsible tourism should be the backbone of the industry,” he added.
“As an activist you are never happy,” said Justin Francis, CEO of Responsibletravel.com and founder of the annual World Responsible Tourism Awards. However, reflecting on the 20 years he has worked to make the industry take responsible tourism seriously, he did see signs of progress. “We have moved from no one knowing what Responsible Tourism was, to people saying they can’t do anything about it, to people asking me to tell them what to do, to now people saying ‘let me show you what we do’,” he explained.
Adama Bah, Director, Institute of Travel and Tourism of Gambia, agreed that the industry had made a great deal of progress, but felt that the focus needed to now be more on destinations, where it was much harder to gain traction. “In our experience in destinations politicians still call the shots,” he said, “and while industry may say it takes the lead, if a project is not supported by politicians they struggle. We have not been able to bring politicians as far as they should.”
Justin Francis was more optimistic, however, commenting that: “Old production models are changing. No longer do companies build a project and launch it on a destination. Now they are collaborating with a destination and developing something together.”
Adama Bah disagreed, arguing that destinations continue to spend more on marketing than the businesses themselves. “Why should government spend the money, basically subsidising the companies and gaining nothing in return?” he asked. “Communities are paying taxes into government and they are not getting the industry they want.”
“We need to stop teaching people to smile for tourists,” said Auliana Poon, Managing Director, Tourism Intelligence International. “We need to give them the livelihoods that mean their smiles come naturally.”
Instead, agreed Jane Ashton, Director of Sustainable Development, TUI Group, the industry needs to keep working to persuade consumers that sustainable tourism makes for better holiday experiences. “We have a long way to go to find the language to raise the demand among customers,” said Ashton. “We have been hesitant because we were worried about greenwash, and now perhaps we are risking so-called ‘greenhush’ and not talking about it enough.”
In a later session exploring tourism’s ability to impact on the Sustainable Development Goals, Peter Burrell, Managing Director, Exodus talked of a project where his company has worked with the impact measurement consultants Just Impact to look at the social end environmental impact of its tours to Nepal. They discovered that virtually all the in country expenditure from his responsible tourism business stayed in the local market. “It confirmed we have in our power an opportunity to really positively impact on communities where we work.”
In the same session, Glynn O’Leary from !Xaus Lodge – which had earlier won a silver award in the World Responsible Tourism Awards – explained how the work that Transfrontier Park Destinations had done to develop a lodge in a remote area of South Africa had brought huge benefits to local people and also to those who invested. He showed how not only has 86 per cent of lodge’s earnings been put back into local economy, but also, because the lodge attracts visitors to the Government-run national park, also spending money on other services, so to it has boosted government revenues and those of local businesses. “I get sick and tired of hearing people from government say they have given this money to the community,” he explained, referring to initial investment to support the lodge’s development. “But they forgot that for example, South African National Parks charge an entry fee into park that lodge is in, and they have made more than three million rand as a result.” Furthermore he added, while they may have made an investment nine years ago – one that had already been more than returned back to them – but they will now continue to earn profits without needing any further investment for as long as the lodge exists and succeeds.
This session was followed by a lively keynote speech by Doug Lansky looking at the challenges confronting destinations eager to attract visitors and protect their integrity at the same time. He showcased how destinations from Dubrovnik to the Cinque Terre were now looking at ways to limit numbers, since tourists increasingly are reporting negative experiences as a result of the discrepancy between the way a destination markets itself and the experience they get when there. “There’s no organisation you can complain to when destinations don’t live up to on their brand promise,” said Lansky. By way of an alternative approach, he suggested that rather than imposing limits, there might be tech-based supply and demand solutions that enable visitors to see how crowded the attractions they wish to visit might be when they book transport and hotels, and thus structure their trip accordingly. We need to look at “Visitor Experience Design” he added.
Earlier that day, hundreds of people keen to promote their Responsible Tourism products and experiences attended the Responsible Tourism Speed Networking. Representatives from buyers including Explore Worldwide, Authenticitys and Inspired Adventures mixed with bloggers, tech providers and other people keen to develop business relationships and further responsible tourism.