How indigenous communities are driving sustainable tourism

Savai'i, Samoa

Savai’i, Samoa: can the island avoid being ruined by mass tourism? Photograph: Corbis

I am currently working on the Pacific island of Samoa, helping the Polynesian people find a way to meet their need for foreign exchange without diluting their culture or degrading the Earth they view as sacred.Faced with the prospect of becoming just another piece of resort real estate, members of the tourism sector are coming together to explore ways of enriching their guests’ experience while ensuring that the money they spend directly benefits villages and helps provide livelihoods and hope for local young people.

They are discovering that while some capital investment is necessary, the real gains in yield come from valuing who they are, where they are and what makes them «exotic.» The work that is being started, community by community, is similar in approach, if not in content, to the UK’s Transition Town Movement.

Whether they know or acknowledge it or not, they are part of a global renaissance within indigenous communities around the world who have not lost their kinship with the land and water that have sustained them through the millennia.

This movement toward conscious travel is about rendering the existing mass tourism model obsolete and co-creating a visitor economy that lives in balance with the natural environment, delivers decent, respectful and enduring livelihoods to its employees, while developing an antidote to the plagues of commodification, diminishing returns, boom and bust.

The power of hosting responsibly

I believe the responsibility for creating this mindset shift rests with hosts – those providers currently engaged in serving the 1 billion international visitors each year, as well as a much larger number of so-called domestic tourists.

The reality is that the overwhelming majority of these hosts are small, medium and, in most cases, micro businesses with limited individual power. So what can they do?

1. Open up and acknowledge their interdependence and learn to work collaboratively together. Grow up into positions of leadership by defining and creating the scale and kind of visitor economy that really works for the host community.

2. Change their perception from providers of products to stewards, servants and champions of places. Only when the uniqueness and sacredness of each place is recognized and deeply experienced will hosts protect it and guests value it. Only when places are revered will selling them cheaply become unthinkable.

3. Pressure their political elders to shift the definition of success from more (as in more visitors or more room capacity) to better (as in skills, yield, business vitality and resilience).

Which is better for a community: 10 hotels operating year after year at 80% occupancy that are able to offer decent wages, maintain infrastructure, support local culture and conserve the natural environment or 30 hotels, all competing tooth and claw for market share and operating on paper thin margins that necessitate severe cost cutting, temporary closures and deferred maintenance?

Hosts need to ask Cicero’s famous question: qui bono? Who really benefits from endless expansion when both start-up and downstream operating costs are rarely acknowledged, let alone measured or mitigated?

4. Ensure that the visitor economy benefits the widest range of citizens in a host community. As the biggest connector of people, tourism is a vital engine of globalisation after technological connectivity and modern mass transport. Its proponents boast of its ability to transfer wealth from rich sources to poorer destinations despite the fact that much of the income flows right back and most jobs are low paid, temporary and seasonal. Communities of conscious hosts will be ingenious in identifying local sources of food, furnishing, materials, guides, retailers and entertainers and creating new business opportunities.

5. Reduce waste to a minimum, be it carbon, food, energy or water. If communities and businesses were asked to pay for all the externalities associated with waste processing, resource extraction, ecosystem services, and public infrastructure, the cost of service provision would rocket and international travel would become unaffordable for many. Given that the ebb and flow of tourism traffic is contingent on numerous forces known to be highly unpredictable, surely it makes sense to pursue resilience and self-reliance.

Helping tourists help themselves

When hosts take these steps and show they care for the places and people they serve, then they will be able to enter into deeper conversations with their guests about becoming mindful, responsible travellers. The need for that conversation is urgent.

We also need to face the fact that if tourism is to play its role in addressing the challenges facing humanity, we each will be asked to travel less often.

Is this elitism? Don’t we all have the right to travel wherever, whenever and as often as we want? The reality is that only 1% enjoy that privilege now. Elitism runs rife through every mode of consumption on the planet. Conscious travel isn’t about making travel more expensive, but about delivering higher net value to guest, host and community alike.

Ironically, despite its vulnerability to mega forces beyond its control, such as economic health of source economies and political instability, tourism is one sector where individuals in the host community can affect change.

Host communities can determine the amount and kind of guests they wish to receive and the pace at which they wish to develop. Bhutan proved the value of this approach in the 1980s and 1990s. Venice and Bali are sadly now exhibiting the cost of too much tourism success.

Cynics might argue that these kinds of grassroots activities might be too little, too late. But we have to start somewhere. Hosts need to become visible forces for good in their community before they can gain the credibility to help their visitors make mindful choices.

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Date / Fecha: 21/08/13

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