Renewed concepts and new stakeholders at the table – Part 1

“We are here to work not to chat” – with these encouraging words Christian Delom opened the doors of A World for Travel, the conference with great ambitions for the future of the travel industry.
The promises were kept and, from the very beginning, topped with ambitious hope and a constructive collective energy arriving from different directions, parts of the globe and types of stakeholders.

During the event, held on the 16th and 17th of September, between the historical walls of the University of Évora, capital of the Alentejo region in Portugal, two themes strongly emerged from the discussions, panels and meetings that populated that part of the lovely town; these themes appeared, more so than others, to have absorbed and spread the spirit of the event: they are ‘governance’ and ‘education’.

Rather than being the conclusion, the need for a new model for tourism was, instead, the starting point of almost every discussion.
How can we build a new – or renewed – model to manage tourism and make it function in a more conscious and effective way?
Cross-sector collaboration was repeatedly pointed to as a necessity for an extremely complex industry that currently does not function in a coordinated way, at either the national or the superregional level. Moreover, according to many delegates, public–private partnerships should become the norm, and models like the Tourism Councils, implemented in Bulgaria, seem to go in that direction.
Although evoking a strong reminiscence of the participatory spaces of Brazilian local government and the experiments of direct democracy of Porto Alegre of the ’90s, the councils seem to add something new to what we are used to seeing in the way tourism is managed globally. The Hon. Nikolina Angelkova – a member of parliament in Bulgaria and the country’s minister of tourism from 2014 to 2020 – has proudly presented this local institution that gathers together government, NGOs and representatives of the trade. The councils are apparently responsible for collectively creating a local strategy for tourism management, able to secure both public and private funding, and are supported by new data collection technology.
This example opens up interesting new decision-making spaces that other European countries and also cities like Barcelona have been implementing, providing new ‘testing facilities’ for management tools that allow horizontal collaboration among all segments of society. Nikolina claims that the locals are an “important source of ideas”, and this could be the beginning of other governance experiments, something that many government representatives seem to be seriously taking into account.
The need for working together seemed to rise as the new ‘must’ from the conference; especially since the sector has shown its fragility, unity emerges as the automatic and obvious response, and it was a commonly held opinion that this ‘togetherness’ should include consulting locals, although in ways that are still to be defined.
A very appropriate remark made by Holly Budge, founder of How many Elephants, during the brief intervention “Conservation’s Crossroads with Travel”, reminds us that there are already many organisations which are active at the destination level, and which represent the perfect potential partners in the collective journey towards conservation, in particular. In her words, the cross-sector collaboration should, and must, consider the local NGOs and community members, because “when fully included, indigenous people and the local communities are the best protectors of wildlife and, in turn, of your business”, and successful examples like the one from Rwanda, of a public–private–community model, provide inspiration for others to come.

After all, echoing Holly’s words, we should not forget that the most important partnership we need to establish and invest in, without doubt, is the one with Nature – one that needs, as Holly put it, to be transformed.

An important realisation that gained space at Évora is that we need to educate all stakeholders about sustainability. It is crucial to acknowledge that many are still unfamiliar with the concept and its dimensions, and with good reason, given its complex, interconnected and multilayered nature.
Since education is, first and foremost, a question of communication, we need to reflect on how we talk about sustainability and what informs our messages, but, above all, who is part of the conversation.

Sustainability is not about ‘limiting’ tourism altogether, suggested Jeremy Smith, co-founder of Tourism Declares Climate Emergency, during the panel “Shifting Climate Changes Impact on Tourism”; rather, it is about limiting those practices that are detrimental to the planet and to biodiversity, while supporting and promoting regenerative ones.
Jeremy is one of those who suggest that in order to instil an attitude of responsibility our communication should be guided by the science, and – extremely important – it should be the result of active listening to the local communities; it is they who should be engaged in the planning, because they are the ones who are suffering first-hand from the direct and devastating consequences of the degradation of the natural environment, and from the effects of a tourism industry that has neither been focused on, nor driven by, sustainability principles.

Finding and gathering positive information about sustainable practices, according to Pascal Viroleau, CEO at Vanilla Islands, is relatively easy, while the hard part – he candidly admits – is to share that information, and, according to him, this is mainly due to the resistance of private companies in the search for a return on their investments. However, we agree with him that it is becoming compulsory to share, because “sharing is showing” the commitment, and tourists are constantly looking for these proofs.

Also, we should not forget that effective communication relies on a shared common language.
In this regard, a very valid point has been raised by Carol Savage founder of Not in the Guidebook, when she pointed out that ‘sustainability’ is a big word for local communities, even though, I can also guarantee, many are already working in a sustainable way. Although they are instinctively protecting the natural environment and, in many cases, they remain the only guardians of ancestral cultural heritage, they do not speak in terms of sustainability, and the language we use is clearly complicated by jargon and technical terminology and is not easily understood by the local people.
How can we make the conversation about sustainability a more inclusive dialogue, especially for local communities, given that they are ones that have a lot to contribute to the discussion?
Perhaps, it would be more effective, as Carol suggested, to think in terms of a continuum, rather than steps towards sustainability, and to re-design what most of the time has been created with a limited audience in mind.