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Has the global growth of tourism become a “wicked” problem?

Readers: I published this on LinkedIn last week.  Just trying to stimulate discussion so am posting it here too.

As predicted, international tourism bounced back from the aftermath of the global financial recession and UNWTO forecasts suggest there could be twice as many international tourists roaming around the planet – that’s a total of 2.4 billion trips made annually – within a mere 14 years or so.

But as we know, averages rarely paint an accurate picture – simply scan the variation in growth rates for selected destinations in the table below (source Skift). Furthermore, linear forecasts are hopelessly unreliable in a world described by the US military as volatile, complex, uncertain and ambiguous (VUCA).

variation in tourism growth rates 2013

Many recently discovered destinations can experience a “Tourism Tsunami” with little warning. Palau, a tiny country with fewer than 20,000 inhabitants experienced a visitor increase of 60% over a three year period to 161,000in 2015 and the market composition changed dramatically resulting in a rapid change in ownership profile. Even established economies with fairly robust infrastructures can be caught unprepared. A report issued by SKIFT this week, Iceland and the Trials of 21st century Tourism describes a country now reeling from the shock of its success.

So is this news?

As observed in many other articles whose numbers are steadily increasing (here are ten), sadly not, but what is different is media and public interest and the fact that Skift, which describes itself as the largest intelligent platform in travel, is daring to articulate to its very mainstream readership what the marginalized responsible tourism community has been voicing for over a decade or two and what the leadership of mainstream tourism has preferred to ignore or underplay. This is how SKIFT opened its article:

Overtourism represents a potential hazard to popular destinations worldwide, as the dynamic forces that power tourism often inflict unavoidable negative consequences if not managed well. In some countries, this can lead to a decline in tourism as a sustainable framework is never put into place for coping with the economic, environmental, and sociocultural effects of tourism. The impact on local residents cannot be understated either.

As the world moves towards two billion travelers worldwide in the next few years, are countries and their infrastructure ready for the deluge? Are the people and their cultures resilient enough to withstand the flood of overtourism?

Ok, but what’s wicked about it?

The term “wicked” is neither hyperbole, slang, nor a moral judgment but a scientific term developed to describe highly complex issues possessing several characteristics in common. One author, Richard Wilson, in The Anti Hero, an excellent introduction to emerging leadership,  has summarized the characteristics of wicked problems as listed in the box below:

wilson wicked problems

Wilson’s list of characteristics is a summary and missed three key additions:

  1. A wicked problem is inherently complex and multi-dimensional. Alan Watkins and Ken Wilbur, authors of Wicked and Wise, How to Solve the World’s Toughest Problems identify a slightly different set of features as illustrated below.
    The multiple dimensions of a wicked problem Source: Watkins and Wilber

    The multiple dimensions of a wicked problem Source: Watkins and Wilber

     

  2. They conform to  Einstein’s observation – i.e. wicked problems cannot be solved with the same level of consciousness that created them; and
  3. They are human creations.

For those who want a more comprehensive set of characteristics, this HBR article Strategy as a Wicked Problem is also a useful starting point.

Does it matter whether the growth of tourism is wicked or not?

Yes, and for the following reasons:

  1. Assigning wicked status has the potential to attract greater attention to the problem, throw more light on it, point us in more productive direction and initiate deeper and more frequent searches for a solution.
  2. By acknowledging its “wicked” nature we can give ourselves permission to admit our shared fear, confusion, ignorance and uncertainty and create the safe space to question, reflect and experiment. (I think the apparent refusal to admit that tourism’s sustained growth constitutes a problem, wicked or otherwise, reflects the fact that none of us have, as yet, a solution. The more tourism, as currently practice, is embraced by regional and local economies in a globalized world, the more damage will occur if it were to be prohibited or scaled back. Yet the more it grows, the more resources are consumed, traditional cultures modified, waste created, carbon burned etc etc).
  3. We can develop the capacities, mindsets, consciousness and level of psychological development in leaders to enable them to work comfortably with the multiple dimensions of a wicked problem.

So what do YOU think? I believe the answer is becoming increasingly clear. The sustained (as opposed to sustainable) growth of international tourism is, as the Skift commentary suggests,  rapidly becoming a wicked problem, albeit only manifest in certain so called hot spots or pressure points right now.

How leaders within the tourism community answer the question in the headline to this post is critical. If the majority say NO, then “business as usual” with some green coating will prevail – for a while. If even a few say YES, then we can start the crucial task of developing the higher levels of leadership consciousness, capacity and collective will to address it.

There is some good news. It comes from  “re-minding” ourselves and remembering that, because wicked problems are human creations,  they can, with a new kind of thinking,  be undone and built anew, to be a better fit for our times.

P.S. For those unfamiliar with my work, let me emphasise that I am neither anti tourism nor its qualitative development. There are countless areas where mindfully managed development of a healthy visitor economy can and should occur. I am, however, concerned that our unwillingness to acknowledge the impact of sustained volume growth along with its root cause will only exacerbate the problem’s inherent wickedness or in layman’s terms “find ourselves up a creek without a paddle!”

 

 

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!

Green Match Awards “Best Conscious Travel Blogs”

Thanks Green Match for including us in their Best Conscious Travel Awards 2016!

We’re in great company.

 

Future Prosperity Depends on Managing Success Today

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?).

welcome note for tourists to veniceNow, 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.

Unlike the Titanic, tourism has neither a captain or a rudder

Unlike the Titanic, tourism has neither a captain or a rudder

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, comment!

Time has come to re-think Travel Philanthropy

Leadership of mainstream tourism has long promoted travel as a force for good. The objective was threefold:

  1. for tourism to be taken seriously and inbound investment encouraged by politicians, policy makers, leading economic institutions, investors and economic development decision makers;
  2. to attract more subsidies, tax breaks and funds for marketing; and
  3. to reduce taxes and restrictions affecting the free movement of people.

The arguments were mostly economic (income, jobs, foreign exchange and taxes) but not necessarily complete. Dr. Rebecca Hawkins’ discussion Measuring What Matters In Tourism is more generous in her summation of the tourism promise. Discussion of the wide range of costs associated with this economic activity has been left largely to academics, consultants, NGOs, journalists, bloggers and film makers. Attempts by third parties to insist that mainstream tourism contain or reduce the costs, pay for externalities (emissions, pollution, congestion) and increase net benefit to host communities have generally been resisted or even framed as anti growth. The task of filling the yawning gap between cost and benefit has been relegated to philanthropy, the “third sector” and government.

Such a stance went unquestioned when society shared an understanding of how the world and the economy works – namely that “the planet is a material object replete with resources (including people) available for those with the capital to exploit for the purpose of maximizing their shareholders’ wealth.”   In my experience, the vast majority of tourism “operators” regardless of the size of operation, have, until recently, subscribed to the position so clearly promulgated by the Nobel prize wining economist Milton Friedman who, as early as 1969, wrote:

Few trends could so thoroughly undermine the very foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for shareholders as possible.

 

Philanthropy in Tourism 2001-2015

traveler's philanthropy handbook

 

The term Traveler’s Philanthropy emerged from the responsible/sustainable travel movement. Michael Seltzer coined the term in 2001 in a series of meetings convened by what is now CREST, the Centre for Responsible Travel. Since then, two major publications, The Travel Philanthropy Handbook published by CREST in 2011 and Advances in Travel Philanthropy, a report prepared for the WTM World Responsible Tourism Day in 2009 by Harold Goodwin & Lucy McCombes confirm that tourism has applied the original approach to philanthropy by positioning it as outside normal business; involving donations of time, money and resources by the privileged to the poor.

…Traveler’s Philanthropy is tourism businesses and travelers making concrete contributions of “time, talent, or treasure‟ to local projects that is beyond what is generated through normal tourism business transactions. Michael Seltzer, 2001
Travel Philanthropy refers to the donating of money, in-kind resources (office equipment, flights and accommodation) or time (mentoring or volunteering) occasioned or facilitated by travel. Harold Goodwin & Lucy McCombes, 2009

In short, both reports define that philanthropy is an act of charity, of giving from a privileged donor (the tourist) to a less privileged recipient, possibly (but not necessarily) enabled, encouraged and sometimes matched by the host enterprise (business).

The context in which the first definition of Traveler’s Philanthropy was presented has changed dramatically. The definition pre-dated the diffusion of mobile phones and social media, the full impact of the destruction of the World Trade Centre in 2001, the global financial crisis of 2007-2008, widespread awareness of climate change, the spread of globalization, recognition of wealth disparity as an economic and social risk, distrust of business, the rise and maturation of Corporate Social Responsibility, the demand for greater transparency and a growing rejection of the point of view expressed by Milton Friedman.

Furthermore, Travel Philanthropy was introduced when the very first members of the Millennial Generation were just entering post secondary education or taking a gap year before doing so and their youngest counterparts were barely four years old. In response to this demographic surge, Educational-youth travel, Millennial Travel, and Voluntourism literally “ took off like a rocket”. According to the World Youth Student and Educational (WYSE) Travel Confederation.

the youth, student and educational travel market now accounts for over 20% of all international arrivals (equals to 207 million arrivals and US$194 billion in 2012 and is expected to grow to 300 million arrivals by 2020 when it will represent US$320 billion in market value.

Young people throughout the world increasingly see participating in international travel as both a right and a rite of passage and as essential preparation for participation in a globalized economy with multi-ethnic work forces. If travel experience embellishes a resume, then time spent volunteering looks even better.

Millenias-Shape-Travel-Trends_FB-Crop-640x335

While “voluntourism,” the subset of the youth market that can be identified as specifically “philanthropic,” is relatively small (see graph ) it has stimulated huge controversy and has attracted considerable media coverage. The mainstream industry (tourism operators and destinations) simply weren’t prepared for the demand by a sub segment of the youth market to want to “give back” nor for the immediate appearance of tour operators willing to “exploit” this fledgling and totally unregulated market.

 

youth travel market

Areas Needing a Re-think

The controversy does, however, point to an urgent need to understand why this aspect of travel philanthropy has, in many cases, done more harm than good, so that we can start to deliver real net benefit in the future. For that to happen, regulations or restrictions won’t be enough – we need a complete re-think:

  1. Acknowledge that the mainstream industrial model of tourism currently relies on an imbalance of economic power based on the notion of separation between origin and destination, guest and host, investor with capital and a resource to be exploited. Where philanthropy is concerned, the power play is between donor and recipient – volunteers feel good by being seen to do good to or donate to another in “need.” Travel philanthropy like most CSR practices is a “bolt on” activity “outside normal business transactions” that provides a “feel good” outcome but does little to redress the imbalance of power, and may well accentuate it by upholding “business as usual.”
  2. Recognize that mainstream tourism is currently an extractive industry. By promising so many benefits (jobs, income, foreign exchange and, in some cases, even peace) but failing to count or mitigate the costs (over use of resources, degradation of culture and environment; poor wages) and assuming that profits can and should accrue to those with capital over those offering labour, tourism has been able to exploit places and people without their full assent.
  3. Stop using CSR and philanthropic practices  to justify ignoring some of the structural and systemic flaws of the current system. A tourism economy can only be considered a community success if the social impact – in terms of community wellbeing, welfare and the net benefit improves in concert with growth. A far better philanthropic outcome will only occur when success is re-defined from the growth of enterprises and volume of visitors to enhanced qualitative social, environmental and personal development. A new definition will necessitate the development of new metrics. See Dr. Hawkins post on this subject here.
  4. Allow and empower destination communities to shape the scale, scope and type of tourism they wish to support. Much is made of the human right to travel and turn up on another’s door step unannounced or without adequate preparation for the consequences, yet very little is said of the right of a destination community to say either “No thanks” or to try to shape the kind of visitation that ensues. Similarly while youth are encouraged to travel to see the world from a different perspective, many of its economic leaders and mainstream media within and outside tourism continue to insist that there is no alternative to business as usual.

    Travel Philanthropy is currently demand driven; oriented to the needs of the donor/volunteer; and is not need directed

    .
    The infrastructure of the visitor economy comprises enterprises and destinations focused more or less exclusively on demand generation and the capacity for destination development, capacity building, community engagement, forming linkages between sub sectors, mitigating negative impacts and anticipating external shocks is seriously under-developed.

  5. Adjust to the fundamental changes taking place in values and attitudes regarding the role of business. Many leading businesses, which are not only the most innovative but also the most profitable, are finding ways to embed sustainability and philanthropy into their DNA by aligning their business purpose with the challenge of solving societal and biophysical challenges. For example, the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP) is a coalition of CEOs united in the belief that societal improvement is an essential measure of business performance. Founded in 1999, CECP has grown to a movement of more than 150 CEOs of the world’s largest companies across all industries whose combined gross revenues exceed $7 trillion annually. CECP’s CEO has this to say:

    The corporate world has undergone a profound and exciting transformation in recent years. As we have moved from the industrial era to the information age, missions and markets have come into new alignment. Never since the dawn of capitalism have purpose and profit been in greater sync for so many companies.

    It’s not that members of the C-suite have suddenly discovered altruism. Rather, today’s instantaneous, transparent, and hyper-connected exchange of data has spawned a new reality. In a world where all stakeholders—customers, neighbors, regulators, and shareholders—can see inside the enterprise, leaders in the corporate sector have committed to an enlightened self-interest in societal investment.

    Conceiving and executing a “giving” strategy need not entail a zero-sum construct that opposes “making money.” Indeed, when corporate societal investment harmonizes with a company’s business strategy, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

In one of the CECP publications, Business at its Best: Driving Sustainable Value Creation co-written with Accenture, the authors observe:

a business at its best is a company that has overcome the traditional strategic and operational divisions between advancing the performance of the enterprise and promoting the wellbeing of citizens and communities. It’s a company that recognizes an opportunity to 
play a positive role in addressing fundamental societal issues—seeing those issues not merely as problems to be addressed through charity alone, but instead as the seeds of innovation and growth.

CECP is one of many different initiatives within the business community that includes Sustainable Brands, Plan B, Conscious Capitalism, Business as an Agent of World Benefit, Economics for the Common Good, The Next System Project, Inclusive Capitalism. and Blueprint for a Better Business (UK) that are united by a common focus –to find ways in which business can generate profits by creating products and services that address fundamental societal needs. A handful (less than 10) major tourism companies are currently involved in these initiatives.

But it is not big business that is likely to make the difference in tourism although it can send strong signals to the marketplace for others to follow. Tourism is comprised mostly (95-99%) of place-based small to medium sized enterprises and change will most effectively take place from the bottom up as these players assume greater control over their own destiny and as different organizational structures, such as social enterprises, cooperatives and not-for-profits, which can deliver benefits throughout a community, are encouraged to flourish.

We know that many travelers want to help. Tourism Cares recently commissioned Phocuswright to scope the Philanthropic Profile of the American Traveler:

  • 55% of all travelers have given back to a leisure destination, either with their time (volunteer work) or through cash or in-kind donations.
  • Nearly half of all travelers attach a very high degree of importance to having their travel spend and donations make a positive difference to local communities in their vacation locations.

We are also witnessing the rise of social impact investing. The Chairman of the UK Government’s Social Impact Investment Taskforce, Sir Richard Cohen, stated in the opening words of the report Impact Investment: The Invisible Heart of Markets:

The world is on the brink of
a revolution in how we solve society’s toughest problems. The force capable of driving this revolution is ‘social impact investing’, which harnesses entrepreneurship, innovation and capital to power social improvement.

Impact investment is growing fast. The amount invested by the 125 leading impact investors is forecast to grow by nearly 20% this year, according to the latest study by the Global Impact Investment Network (GIIN) and JP Morgan. Given that $45 trillion are in mainstream investment funds that have publicly committed to incorporate environmental, social and governance factors into their investment decisions, it would only need a small fraction of this money to start moving into impact investment for it to expand rapidly along the growth path to the mainstream previously taken by venture capital and private equity.

Conclusion
The serious question that now needs addressing is – how do we ensure that this huge demand to “do good, ” “give back” and invest for a social as well as a financial return, truly meets the needs of the host communities in the places they visit. The tourism industry has known for over a decade just how little money spent in a destination has really trickled down – A UNEP sponsored web page (un-dated) estimated that only 5 cents in every dollar spent by a visitor staying in an all inclusive resort, for example, stays in the destination to be shared by the host community. Surely a real philanthropic achievement will occur when we have collectively found a way to improve significantly on that simple measure?

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The workshop is now full but contact me (theconscioushost@gmail.com) with the headline Measuring What Matters and I’ll make sure you get a copy of the report following the work.

 

Travel + Social Good: It All Starts with WHY?

travel +social good banner

On Wednesday of this week I set off for New York to join 150 people committed to figuring out how to make responsible tourism go mainstream at the  Travel + Social Good 2016 Summit.

I’m encouraged because it won’t be a talkfest but a re-design workathon. I am particularly pumped up because I’ll be in the company of other Crazy Ones, like members of the Green Program, willing to listen as much as to speak and willing to look at the challenges facing us as both humans and as tourism professionals from many different perspectives.

crazy ones

I am also hopeful that before we rush into “the how,” we’ll acknowledge the critical importance of addressing two critical “why” questions:

  • Why is the mainstream model of tourism – as a collective economic phenomenon practiced for the past 60 + years– becoming so unsustainable?
  • What is the true purpose of a responsible, regenerative alternative?

But I am also a little fearful that out of a desire to be seen to be effective, fast moving, and action-oriented, we’ll confuse design with problem solving/fixing – as an exercise in re-engineering (albeit with a subtler, softer language) based on a belief we can stay in control of our future.

Even though our daily experience of global digital connectivity may have helped us (as both individuals and communities) to see ourselves as self organizing agents in a huge networked system of living systems, we still tend to apply industrial, mechanical tools to address today’s challenges.

For example, a persistent reductionist habit is evident in the way we segment responsible from sustainable, geo from eco, pro poor from community-based and continue to focus on issues as if they were disconnected from one another e.g., women’s rights, biodiversity, animal cruelty, human trafficking, carbon emissions, peace and security.

Answering the questions posed above (in italics) will necessitate our digging deep into root causes and both identifying and questioning the assumptions, values and beliefs that underpin and shape our behaviour.

esinstein quote for blog

While it has become fashionable to repeat the words in the graphic attributed to Albert Einstein, living that truth is very difficult. It requires a level of deep inner reflection and outer observation that very few time-pressed executives and leaders, who know they are judged on actions not thoughts, feel able to take.

 

When I repeatedly say, “tourism is not an industry but a living human system” most people nod their heads in agreement. Some tell me that they’ve studied systems theory and are familiar with its concepts. To which I say, “Great, but how do we live it?” Not only is that much harder to do but until we wear a systems set of lenses every day, we’ll fail to see how best to act.

Two words, which are appearing with increasing frequency in the business literature are purpose and regeneration, might trigger productive thought as to how live consciously within a system.

Purpose
At our best, humans are “meaning seeking beings.” Those of us whose survival needs have been met are asking deeper questions – Who am I? Why am I here? What’s my contribution to making the world a better place? Many of our customers are, in fact, travelling on a quest for answers. These are questions that apply to all aspects of our life, including economies.

People cogently asking the question “What’s an economy for? include Kate Raworth (Doughnut Economics) and Christian Felber, founder of Economy for the Common Good; along with the members of Conscious Capitalism; Business as an Agent for World Benefit; the Next System Project, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, and B-Corp certified companies – to name merely a few of a growing host of individuals actively contributing to redesigning the economy.

Posing this question is crucial because as systems theorists and practitioners will tell us – you can’t direct a system, you can only disturb it. And the most effective way of disturbing a system is to change its purpose.

The late Donella Meadows – one of the most articulate and early proponents of a systems perspective has this to say in response to the question, if you can’t understand, predict, and control, what is there to do?

Systems thinking requires a different sort of “doing.” The future can’t be predicted but it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being. Systems can’t be controlled but they can be redesigned. We can’t surge forward with certainty into a world of no surprises, but we can expect surprises and learn from them and even profit form them. We can’t impose our will upon a system, we can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone. We can’t control systems but we can dance with them!

personalityhacker_systems-thinking-graphic

Hopefully at the Summit, we’ll start with an inquiry into the purpose of tourism and hospitality. Readers of my blog will know it’s one of my favourite questions and most popular topics ( see Why should these graduates work for you?)

  • Is tourism simply about maximizing shareholder profit or enabling all its stakeholders to flourish?
  • Is the purpose of a destination and the agencies responsible for it simply to attract more visitors (to grow in volume) or to ensure this activity generates greater net benefit (measured both quantitatively and qualitatively) for all stakeholders?
  • What – especially from a systems point of view – does a successful, flourishing destination look and feel like?
  • Can tourism fulfill a higher purpose and genuinely contribute to making the world a better place and how?

Regenerative
Which leads me to the next word grabbing more business attention: Regenerative.
Another great contemporary writer thinker, Marjorie Kelley, having conducted a through analysis of which financial institutions continued to serve their communities through a period of financial collapse observed in her book Owning Our Future:

You don’t start with the corporation and ask how to redesign it.

You start with life, with human life of the planet and ask…

How do we generate the conditions for life’s flourishing?

To which I would answer, you can’t do that without changing your mindset and shifting your focus away from mechanics and engineering to living systems and evolution. I am in agreement with another economist turned philosopher-change agent, David Korten whose plain speaking in Change the Story: Change the Future drives the point home:

The only valid purpose of an economy is to serve life. To align the human economy with this purpose, we must learn to live as nature lives, organises as nature organises, and learn as nature learns, guided by a reality-based, life centred, intellectually-sound economics.

It’s because life evolves and is not static that we can never restore something to its original condition nor can we ever succeed in conserving what we have today for future generations. (I was in magical mystical Bali in 1973 – there’s no way a visitors can have that experience today). But what we can do is restore a system’s capacity to continuously self organize and evolve into ever higher levels of complexity, beauty, order, resilience and adaptability.

It’s because of this more accurate understanding of LIFE, that the word sustainability has not succeeded in capturing the hearts and minds of the majority.

In A Living Systems Approach to Design, Bill Reed, cofounder of Regenesis starts his presentation with:

Regeneration is about framing restoration as a whole – engaging the earth’s systems, the biotic systems, AND the people of each unique place in a continuous dialogue of restoration and evolutionary development – a healing or “wholeing.”

Regeneration involves inspiration – an act of breathing new life into a person, into an enterprise, a community, a place, an association and a guest!

Finally and this is the point most pertinent to tourism – we can do regeneration best at a community level because first and foremost it involves expressing and celebrating the forms of life that reflect the uniqueness of the place in which life evolves. As we grow in awareness of who we are and why we are here as humans, we are literally re-membering (piecing back together) the whole system of life in each unique place instead of the fragments we have been taught to specialize in. Indigenous people, allowed to live on the land true to the customs and traditions that emerged from it, have never forgotten this living systems knowledge. Our indigenous brothers and systems can help all of us become indigenous again and learn to be living expressions of a place we in tourism call a destination.

Finally to inspire and encourage let me a share a great example presented by the efforts of residents on Inishboffin to ensure their visitor economy flourishes through responsible, community-driven tourism development. My dear friend Mary Mulvey of  Eco Tourism Ireland who inspired and supported the community and, in my opinion, did an amazing job. It’s one example of thousands emerging from the grassroots.

So for all these reasons, I am very excited and inspired by the prospect such great company at the end of this week and exploring how tourism fulfill its true potential as a force for good.

Magic or Common Sense? Deep caring produces a better tourism

A fundamental premise underpinning Conscious Travel is that change will come from the grassroots, led by caring hosts passionately committed to ensuring tourism delivers on its promise as a force for good.

Two great examples have emerged from Siem Reap, Cambodia in recent weeks to make me wonder if there’s something special in the water there. Could Siem Riep become the locus of pilgrimage for impoverished hoteliers?

shintaMy first source of inspiration is the Shinta Mani Club and Resort where Abe Chrisitian Baer and his Khmer team are proving conclusively that the application of responsible practices in both the environmental and social sphere can pay dividends both literally and metaphorically.

The two properties offer 102 rooms of accommodation in total. Consistently ranked 1, 2, and 3 on Trip Advisor (in the world!), they enjoy the highest year round occupancy of all properties in the area (71%), almost total staff retention, the highest Average Daily Rate (KPIs any investor would drool over) and highest general operating profit.

So what’s the magic? Well according to Abe, there isn’t any but, instead, lots of common sense and a belief that by deeply caring about the people and the place first, profits will follow.

I encourage you to listen to this webinar,  one of an excellent series developed by Alexandre Tsuk, of BookGreener. You’ll have the added benefit of learning from Peter Richards’s experience with community tourism in Thailand and the success enjoyed by Mark Dieler, owner of Red Monkey Lodge in Zanzibar.

 

The Key Elements of the Shinta Mani Experience
Abe credits his success to the fact that he focuses on two things: ensuring his staff are employed well, year round and looking after their welfare.

staff welfare achievementsAs the tourism season is limited to a few months of the year, most hotels lay off their staff during the off-peak period. Abe was determined to retain his people (275 staff in total and 6 in management) throughout the year but knew it would be costly – $375,000 per year in fact, and the money would have to be taken out of the operating budget. So the first things to go were expensive sales trips and participation in other out of town meetings, followed by expensive glossy brochures, supplemented by a very effective and different approach to the use of social media that certainly works if numbers of likes, referrals and returns are a measure. The sole goal of 275 passionate, committed and caring team members is to “wow” the guest. About half of Abe’s time is focused on the health and welfare of his staff and their families. You can see the range of activities in these slide.

community achievementsGood community relations naturally follow – thanks to a close and generous relationship with the surrounding temples. For example, Shinta Mani attracted 900 monks during one festival to chant in unison for his guests. They have developed a weekly Made in Khmer Market that is another method of ensuring visitor’s spending spreads throughout the community and further promotes the area. When you watch the webinar – and you must – you’ll learn about the environmental initiatives too.

Be inspired! Take a visit to the Shinta Mani Foundation page here

Footprint Cafes
coffeeWhat started as a local café founded three years ago could, thanks to the vision, energy and passion of the young founders of this social enterprise, become a global business model that again can demonstrate the true power of tourism as a force for good.

The Footprint team met in 2013 as part of the founding team of New Leaf Book Café in Siem Reap, Cambodia.  In its first year, New Leaf employed 17 local staff, became sustainable as a business, started its own rural schools book donation programme and made over $20,000 in net profits which it donated to 8 different local organisations.

New Leaf was established with private money and was intended to be a one off but as the founders have seen the business model work, they want to scale it up, globally!

Again I urge you to visit their web site and follow them on Facebook and Twitter, but here’s their vision:

Footprint Cafés will harness the financial power of tourism for the benefit of host communities. We hope to be at the forefront of a new generation of globally conscious brands by:

  • establishing our cafés in countries where there are barriers to education and high volumes of tourists
  • donating 100% of net profits as educational grants back to the local community
  • investing in our local teams by providing training and career progression, paying a living wage, paid parental leave and health insurance
  • using environmentally sustainable practices throughout our cafés

Footprint Cafés aspires to become a world famous brand with an ethos that resonates with tourists who care, who want an authentic local experience and who love great cafés. Footprint Cafés will connect the global to the local, giving its patrons world class service and cuisine while empowering local communities. These aren’t pipe dreams – following their success in Siem Riep, their next project is is Battambang, Cambodia and they have started raising funds for a coffee shop in Cambridge, UK.

I have every confidence these young people will do well – especially if we give them our support. And I bet the coffee lacks a bitter taste too! No doubt the established coffee chains will object to this disruptive business model – as all the profits go back into the community they serve – but well, “all’s fair in love and love.”

The tourism and hospitality community is indeed making the world a better place – just wake up and smell the coffee!

Status Update & Plans for 2016

To all my loyal supporters and readers, I owe you an update. While my posts have decreased in frequency, the expenditure of effort has not diminished. I want to share where we’re at and and the exciting plans for 2016, in keeping with our mission:

Our Mission short version
To ensure tourism becomes a tangible force for good, enabling places and people to flourish.

Our Mission long version
To increase the positive net impact of inbound tourism one community at a time; by enabling hosts (residents and tourism business owner-managers) to assume greater responsibility for shaping the nature, scale and pace of tourism development in their destination.

Conscious.Travel is working towards the achievement of its mission in three ways:

1. Developing Conscious Hosting – a set of educational materials and support tools, primarily aimed at communities of hosts, to increase their capacity to adapt and flourish in a highly volatile, disruptive world.

  • CT cover pageWe’ve published 100 articles on this blog (conscious.travel) to raise awareness of the need to develop a holistic, integrated alternative to the dominant model. The term Conscious Travel or Conscious Tourism being used more frequently.
  • Published a 90+ page report integrating background research, rationale and unique holistic perspective on an alternative model (Social Entrepreneurship in Tourism: The Conscious Travel Approach). This report was designed for use by academics teaching tourism and hospitality at a university level. Click on image to download.
  • Prepared a brief summary in the form of a Conscious Travel Manifesto
  • Spoken at over 30 conference events over past 4 years – slide presentations all available on Slideshare here.
  • Writing a more popular, accessible book, Pathways to Prosperity, for destination stakeholders that provides practical advice on how to apply Conscious Travel principles to increase enterprise profit and destination yield.
  • Developing a one day workshop for hosts (suppliers and residents in a community) who wish to cope better with change and collaborate to build a better tourism.

2. Developing Conscious Journeys that showcase ways in which well-designed trips can produce higher levels of net benefit to host communities by:

  • Generating and distributing income more widely and deeply into the host community through resident engagement and development of rich, creative and diverse “experiences” that draw upon local knowledge;
  • Sustaining existing and future micro-enterprises and local year-round employment;
  • Working with suppliers committed to taking actions that improve the net benefits gained from tourism (reducing energy, resource and water use); regenerating cultures and place-distinctiveness; and engaging a wider range of residents)
  • Attracting philanthropic support in the form of social investment, donations of money and expertise; micro-loans; and
  • Fostering the reciprocal exchange of knowledge, perspectives and expertise between guests and hosts that contributing to the achievement one of more of the United Nations’ Global Goals.A test itinerary will be shared soon. All feedback welcome.

3. Developing Places That Care – a program that motivates and engages youth to support and encourage existing businesses, associations, and public agencies to “change for good by contributing to the achievement one of more of the United Nations’ Global Goals.

OTHER ON-GOING PRO BONO WORK
I am pleased to feature the projects I have also been working with this past year:

SPEAKING AND WORKSHOPS
Conscious Travel is a very much a non-profit organisation but is not richly endowed. I am having to limit the number of pro bono speaking engagements in 2016 while I complete my book but I know I can offer hosts original and practical insights in how to generate greater sustained profitability for their business and deliver improved benefits to their communities based on my research.

For more information on a content rich, one-day workshop designed to serve small to medium sized communities (host supplies and residents) who wish to Flourish in an Age of Disruption, please contact me at: theconscioushost@gmail.com.

 

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