Archive | August, 2016

Why tourism needs more meerkats and fewer ostriches

This post was written in the days following Rio 2016, infused, as a Brit,  with the euphoria emanating from Team GB’s remarkable and inspirational achievement. Two excellent articles circulating at the time also triggered these reflections:

1. The latest post from Carolyn Childs of MyTravelResearch,  Does Tourism Suffer from the Innovator’s Dilemma?  in which Carolyn concludes her thought provoking and substantive discussion of how to increase innovationmeerkat3 raptorfoundation co uk within the tourism industry, with this prescient observation:

Meerkats are the ideal example here… They are always working together to scan the horizon and work in teams to do so. In the harsh environment of the desert or savannah that has given them a distinct survival advantage.

2. Skift’s insightful but long overdue piece on “overtourism” Iceland and the Trial’s of 21st Century Tourism  in which Skift’s author, Andrew Scheivachman, draws our attention what is now emerging as tourism’s own “wicked problem” – how to manage run away success when no one is or can be in control? Skift describes Iceland as

…a mirror to the larger changes that happen in a destination when the democratization of global travel meets the willingness of destinations to make tourism as the growth engine of their region.

The Skift investigation explores the problems: beginning with gateway problems at its primary airport, to hotel infrastructure, to Airbnb running rampant, to too many tourists with too little understanding of the ecological fragility of the country, to climate change and tourism’s effect on it, to too few trained tourism professionals in the country, to tour operators feeling the burden, to pressure on understaffed local police, to hollowing out of Reykjavik’s downtown, to early signs of locals resenting tourists, and more.

If a first-world country like Iceland is having trouble with figuring out the solutions, what hope do countries like Cuba or Burma have?

Skift report cover

Skift report cover

I am thrilled that Skift is using its reach and influence to highlight the deep issues associated with unchecked tourism growth even though the question posed in the last paragraph of their quote strikes me as somewhat patronising and possibly inaccurate. Countries like Cuba and Burma, where pre-western traditions have a louder voice and where community is alive and well, may have a greater chance of avoiding the perils delivered by so called “success”, as the western world has defined it.

Despite being a highly dynamic, fluid human-system of self organizing agents with virtually no leaders sufficiently empowered to mould it to their will, post war tourism has applied an organizational structure (hierarchies and siloes) and processes (command and control by those with power and budgets) derived from industrial models. Since the emergence of agriculture and later industry, humanity has embraced hierarchies as an effective way of allocating resources, defining roles and enabling organisations to operate. But, as we’re seeing in tourism, hierarchies have serious limitations, especially in a period of rapid technological, social, political and ecological change.

murmations time

As Don Tapscott observes in the foreword to Smart Swarms,

“Communication from the bottom up is often limited, except through formal labour-management relations. Hierarchies are typically bureaucratic, and employees lack motivation. Increasingly, they are insufficient as a way of organizing for a past paced economy where human capital needs to be unleashed for innovation, value creation and customer relationships”

They certainly don’t work when those those few organisations with sufficient power and budget to face the need for radical change decide to sustain “business as usual” and behave like ostriches.

The Skift article attributes “overtourism” euphemistically to the “democratization of travel” – both words code for sustained, compounded volume growth. If you buy that such growth might, in fact, be a wicked problem especially as we really don’t know how to modulate it, then you must also accept that traditional fixes proposed from the same mindset that created the problem, won’t work either. Nothing less than systemic transformation is needed in which case, according to W Edward Deming, the father of Total Quality Management (TQM);

Long-term commitment to new learning and a new philosophy is required of any management that seeks transformation

MyTravelResearch rightly intuits what science is now discovering and explaining. The answers lie in nature where mounting evidence suggests that self-organisation, diversity, two-way communication, collaboration, information sharing and adaptive mimicking are more likely to enable sustained success. Meerkats also intuitively, well instinctively, get that.

And if you want highly contemporary evidence that working in teams comprising highly diverse sets of perspective and skills with the freedom to experiment, fail and learn then look at Team GB. Everyone of the 67 medals that GB’s athletes brought back home this week represents the efforts of a hoard of invisible others (scientists, coaches, nutritionists, therapists, designers, drivers, psychologists, mums and dads) all focused on developing the athlete as a whole person. Just imagine what could happen if we applied a similar approach to how we run companies and whole sectors i.e., create the conditions for individuals to stretch, grow and flourish by giving them an inspiring reason  to do so. Interestingly, athletes, interviewed post-Olympics, often state that while achieving a medal was a personal goal, they were spurred on and inspired by the higher purpose of giving back to their country. Group i.e. collective euphoria played an important role too. In a post-Brexit Britain, two weeks of optimism, collective hope and joy were a welcome tonic.

Team GB evidence that collective, collaborative effort pays!

Team GB evidence that collective, collaborative effort pays!

Over the next series of posts, I’ll examine what makes a problem “wicked,” why new forms of leadership are needed; what that leadership might look like and the relevance and effectiveness of setting “flourishing” as a goal.

Are the eggs of the tourism goose starting to crack?

Readers: this is a copy of a post I published here on LinkedIn on June 2nd. Only the header picture is changed

Almost for as long as tourism has existed, we’ve heard the expression ” don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg” yet over the same time has carried on growing regardless.

It looks like 2016 will be the year when it becomes obvious that the golden eggs are cracking under the weight of a very heavy goose. Mainstream media seems to be taking a serious interest in tourism and, because bad news sells newspapers, their focus is on congestion. A few examples already this year include  Iceland, where tourism grew 29% in one year, and Airbnb is the bearing the brunt of local negativity; several European cities where congestion, Airbnb, and the cruise industry are objects of resident ire, Thailand, where three islands have been closed to visitors due to the environmental damage they cause, the Balearics, where a booming tourism industry is welcomed after a decade of recession; and most recently New Zealand whose 100% Pure image is at risk thanks to an unexpected 10% jump in international arrivals (see: RNZ article: Who should pay for the costs of tourism?).

Now, if you thought that it was about time the evils of mainstream, mass tourism were highlighted, think again. Ironically, it is often the so called “eco-tourists” who venture off the beaten track in pursuit of wildness or solitude, that do the greatest harm. The author of the Balearics article, quotes a local conservationist decrying the damage caused to bird nesting sites by over zealous bird watchers:

I think it’s better to have those drinking ghettoes, Playa de Palma and Magaluf, where people go, rather than these intellectual types of tourists who tramp over everything in their search for the untouched bit, the original Mallorcan, and the residential tourists, who buy up property, buy a car, usually two, swimming pools, and want gardens with plants and grass like at home but that need water.

Jeremy Smith (founder of Travindy) has also written a stimulating post today, The endless quest for authentic tourism is sowing the seeds of its own destruction, astutely observing:

that which began as a backlash against the mainstream is fast becoming the mainstream. The increasingly ubiquitous coffee shops and quirky cafes become filled with international hipsters. The museums and galleries teem with foreign visitors seeking a selfie, with the Botticelli now serving as little more than a backdrop…. 

Almost every destination markets itself according to this model, using some form of generic, catch-all appeal to perfection. Everywhere is presented as pure, natural and waiting-to-be-discovered. Even when so-called responsible tourism seeks to present itself as distinct from the mainstream, it mostly does so by reinforcing the same dominant story theme – by accentuating the authentic, and lingering over the local.

If the tourism economy has any chance of becoming sustainable (for it certainly isn’t now), we have to enter into a more intelligent, nuanced debate that acknowledges reality and its complexities in terms of both cause and consequence.

There were many times when Captain Smith of the Titanic could have left entertaining the investors of his shiny new vessel, returned to the bridge and changed course. But, convinced his beautiful ship was unsinkable, he chose not to. Or perhaps having sold the investors of its unsinkability, he couldn’t admit he might be wrong? What do you think – was it an iceberg or hubris that sank the Titanic?

We saw a similar pattern in the months running up to the global financial crisis when, in 2007, the CEO of Citigroup – leveraged up to its eyeballs – declared “As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.” The financial collapse occurred not because people were ignorant of the possibility (everyone knew the music would stop one day) but because no one wanted to be the first to leave a good party before the canapés and champagne ran out.

No professional in tourism could ever stand up and say they had no idea tourism could be destructive.

The real problem challenging global tourism is that we’re running out of time to address the root causes underpinning the problems highlighted in the stories listed above and they are.

  • a fixation on volume growth combined with a failure to understand the effects of compounded exponential growth;
  • the global spread of an extractive model that sees people and places as resources to be exploited;
  • a failure to engage resident populations in understanding all the ramifications of opening one’s doors to tsunami-like demand and allowing them to make informed choices;
  • failure to develop the leadership capacity within destinations to deal with such a “wicked problem” as compound growth. (Our tourism and hospitality schools and the many consultant-driven training sessions all assume that the primary goal is volume growth + contribution to GDP not net benefit).
  • a reluctance to admit to and deal directly with the negative consequences associated with tourism – planning regulations, traffic management; zoning, carrying capacity, user fees etc etc
  • failure to see and understand the integrated relationship between tourism and all other factor of human society (culture and economy) as well as the natural world on which it depends.
  • its susceptibility and vulnerability to ravishing “boom and bust” cycles that elicit either greed+recklessness+willful blindness or panic-selling+price discounting depending on which side if the roller coast you are on.

As Jeremy Smith has suggested, it doesn’t matter how authentic or green the supply of an experience is shaped to be, too much of it, imposed on a population (even if it could be a force for good) will produce a huge backlash. The parallels with the immigration crisis in Europe cannot be ignored. Too much of anything delivered too quickly and without the consent of all stakeholders is doomed to produce resistance and, in many case, rightfully so.

But my use of the Titanic metaphor is unfortunately inappropriate. Yes, we have many shiny “new” even “awesome” new vessels in tourism, and no shortage of investors and participants wishing to grab a piece of the action, but the amorphous nature of the phenomenon means that, in tourism, there is no captain and no bridge. No one is in charge!

Furthermore, those that do see a problem ahead identify it by its form not its cause – the responsible tourism movement is currently a cacophony of voices protesting about any one of multiple issues; abuse of wildlife, habitat destruction, money laundering, tax evasion, child trafficking, sex tourism, orphanages, carbon emissions, water overuse, eviction and exploitation of indigenous peoples, cruising etc. while, at the same time, extolling the growth of responsible alternatives whose infinite growth could become just as threatening IF not managed properly.

Jeremy is also right to associate the current situation with a Greek tragedy – it’s futile to blame anyone or group. We’re each and all caught up in a flawed social system that needs to be addressed and the first step is to name it for what it really is. Jeremy calls it a new narrative; I call it a new operating model. The name doesn’t matter but our willingness to take off our rose tinted sunglasses and get to work will.

If you care either way, please comment!

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