Welcome Ben!
1. Oktober 2019

5 suggestions for circular tourism

Circular economy is the idea of an endless cycle of production and consumption as we see it in nature, aiming at the minimization of the use of resources in our current throwaway society. Let’s have a look how it works for tourism.

I think we all agree that any cycle of production and consumption should be as fair and sustainable as possible. This is why the global community agreed on Social Development Goal #12 – the sustainable production and consumption. The tourism industry was actually quite thrilled to be explicitly mentioned in three of the SDGs – 8, 12 and 14.

The theoretical model of circular economy works quite well when we look at consumerism and the production and consumption of goods. Slightly less so in the context of services. And it gets extremely complex, when we look at a phenomenon like tourism.

Let me give you some quick numbers:

In 1950 the UNWTO estimates 25 million tourist arrivals. Now, 70 years later – and this is how old the industry actually is – this number has increased to 1.4 billion international arrivals per year. This is a 56-fold increase. Every 9th job in the world is connected to tourism.

So let’s have a look at the problem here:

We all agree that we are conscious consumers here, right? So we try to follow principles like: “Leave nothing but a footprint, take nothing but a picture, when we are on holidays.” But how do we do that?

We carefully choose our destinations. Maybe we book at a certified agency; maybe we even compensate our flights; we try to get as close to the locals as possible; we take our waste back to the camp when hiking; and we try to leave as much money in the places we travel to as possible.

Well, that’s great and already hard enough to do in many cases. So well done.

But we are looking for so much more when we go to places than just being well attended and sharing some lovely pictures – consciously or unconsciously. Fact is, that we all come with a huge backpack of emotions and also leave behind a lot more on an emotional level than we think we do. And we also take a lot more than we realize from the destinations and people we travel to.

Destinations are more than just a place where tourists go. They are a place where people live. They are homes to people. And the circle we have to draw here does not only include the money we bring to the place, or the infrastructure we use, or the environment we explore and try to protect. It also includes the wellbeing of the people who live there.

And yet, all of this seems to be completely unknown to the tourism industry, an industry which almost completely excludes human emotions while selling exactly that. There is of course plenty of research about the customer and his or her happiness and satisfaction, but hardly any about local populations.

Let me give you an example:

 

This is me in a pygmy village in Uganda, close to the borders to Ruanda and Congo. I look happy, don’t I? Smiling, dancing with the locals, right?

I was in the region to see some of the last remaining mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. It was a lovely experience with a locally owned tourism project which is actually a very successful social business. Gorilla trekking combines nature conservation and income for the community. It is a wonderful experience which everybody who has done it highly recommends, including myself.

 

 

 

Now, since the gorilla trekking is only possible in small groups of a maximum of six people, I had a day off after the hike, and a local “tour guide” offered to take us to a nearby pygmy village, which I happily accepted, together with two other women from our group. What we found there was this:

 

  • Drunk men singing and wanting to dance with the white visitors.
  • Adolescent boys asking for clothes, soap and sunglasses.
  • Hungry children in torn clothes, too weak to get up.
  • Women hiding from the spectacle.
  • An angry crowd, which was not satisfied with the money they counted in the hat which they had handed us for awarding them for their performance.
  • And behind the camera a completely overwhelmed “tour guide” who urged us to leave quickly before the situation escalates.
  • And three tourists in shock.

 

 

What you see here is actually my uncomfortable smile.

 

Now, it is not my intention to ruin your holiday in Africa. If you get a chance, please go, it’s a fascinating continent. But what I do want to point out is, that we need to see the whole picture of the industry, its role as such, which should start to identify as a worldwide movement rather than an industry, and our role as players in tourism. The circle here has to be drawn much bigger than just around a few best practice examples. As long as we stay in our bubbles, circular tourism works to some extent but we need to change the industry’s paradigm.

Unfortunately I do not have all the answers here. But I do have some suggestions for the tourism industry:

  1. Look at the big picture. Be conscious of the industry and its role in the world as a whole.
  2. Talk to the local populationsand find a solution that benefits their wellbeing as well as the travelers’.
  3. Accept no for an answer. Not every community wants or needs to become a tourism destination. Or maybe just to a certain extent or under certain conditions. This is totally okay.
  4. Consultants: Inform your clientsabout the industry, so they can make informed decisions. Even if the answer is no. It may be yes, at another point, and then they will see you as a trusted companion in the process.
  5. Everybody: Be consciousabout your emotional backpack and what you bring to a place apart from money and wanderlust.

This is what I do myself with destination:development and this is what it looks like, when you follow this suggestions. This is actually my happy smile. I hope you find a lot of these moments yourself, when you travel.

Thank you, ALCHEMIA NOVA for the invitation and for having me as stand-up inovator at your event.

 

If you prefer to watch the video of the talk, here you go: